Editor's Note: So the Marlies have been officially eliminated from the playoffs. I meant to write a recap after the game but life happened. Anyway, here's my experience at the game and some thoughts on the torrent of complaints that have been fired at the Marlies, MLSE, the citizens of Toronto, and Justin Pogge.
As you can guess by the result I attended Tuesday night's Toronto Marlies game. It did not go well. In my defence, I went with a good friend of mine who is poison for the home team. We've seen one or two amazing wins but the vast majority have been clunkers. It even transcends sports since the Bills lost to Miami when we went. As we walked out I came to a realization: the Leafs have not made the playoffs since he moved to Toronto in May of 2005. We're currently working on figuring out if he has had relatives living in the city since 1967. I might be on to something.
The Marlies were taking on the conference's top seed in game four of their series looking to go up 3-1. Despite this the rink was essentially empty. Being in the rink, I can tell you that the attendance was even lower than TSM noted on TV. There were 500 people there last night. Maybe 750 tops since I am notoriously bad at counting crowds and didn't have the patience to count the fans one-by-one.
I don't know why people complain about the Marlies. "It's not the Leafs!" they cry but from my seat in the McDonald's section they looked just like the Leafs. They played hard but committed some bad turnovers, their PP could not score on a 5-on-3, they took some dumb penalties and their porous PK cost them the game. My partner in hockey watching was not impressed with Pogge. He took two penalties, one stupid and one hilarious (he skated out of his net to push over a Moose and then skated back), and his problems with screens continue. For such a big goalie he does a terrible job of making himself big and seeing past the screens. As a comparison, Roberto Luongo does those two things amazingly. You have to wonder what changed from the first three games when Pogge was outduelling Schneider but if it's any indication it's his teammates' awful play. They allowed 3 powerplay goals and made an atrocious giveaway on another. It doesn't totally absolve Pogge of blame but it certainly doesn't warrant getting benched in the deciding game of the series. I'd love to know the reasoning behind that move because it looks like a panic move by Gilbert and suggests that if player development is our goal that he might not be the man that should be in charge going forward.
I wasn't the only one that was curious enough about the Marlies to make my way down to the Ricoh to catch playoff hockey. TSM actually made it out to the Sunday game and has been a frequent visitor to the Ricoh with little TSM. He had a list of observations that reflect his greater familiarity with the Marlies games. Based on my visit there are some valid complaints. Others likely require multiple visits to notice.
The most obvious issue with the Marlies is the price of tickets. If you can believe it they've actually gone down with time but at $38 for the best tickets, $30 for anything on the side, $21 for the cheapest section and a limited amount of tickets at $13 they are still way out of whack with what will work in the GTA. My friend noted that he'd love to know who did the marketing report that suggested that those prices were feasible. The thing that seems to be lost on the decision makers is that Toronto is a major league city. There is such a wealth of world class events and attractions (insert joke about it being great to have a world class hockey team) that you cannot be charging those kinds of prices for the minor leagues. My friend made an observation that basically everyone in the Marlies organization was working towards the big club from the concession workers to the mascot Duke to the players and coaches. The price of tickets should reflect that reality.
Revamping the entire ticketing strategy goes hand in hand with addressing the slings and arrows that have been throw at Toronto's hockey fans. A lot of that rant is just that, ranting, and should probably be aimed at MLSE than the fans. It is unfortunate that the players do not get the support that they need or that their opponents feel great playing on the road in Toronto. Does it look bad when an OHL game outdraws the Marlies? Only if you don't bother considering the massive difference in ticket prices. Toronto Mike notes that the players are great with the fans, the PR/marketing department work their tail off, and the game is a good time. They have a band in the rafters which I actually enjoyed and was a nice change from the usual arena music. However, with parking at $12 and concessions being just as overpriced as the rest of MLSE holdings it makes a night out very expensive.
Those factors don't even consider the atmosphere. TFC, for the majority of its existence, have been terrible for a variety of reasons too many to list. They have also sold out every game, have 14,000 season ticket holders, and 7,000 on the waiting list. How come? Part of the reason is that going to a TFC game is an event. The crowd participation is unreal in the supporters sections and even the corporate seats make noise during the simpler chants. Compare that to the Ricoh where the crowd is sparse and the decibel level can be measured in single digits. If I was running the show I'd make all tickets the same price. The idea is obviously that the Marlies are in Toronto because that helps the development of the Leafs' prospects. It allows greater movement between the clubs which can help with the salary cap as well. Essentially, it is to the Leafs' advantage to be able to have the financial resources to lose money on the Marlies.
Along with the one-price policy I would close all sections outside of the middle two on each side until they were all sold out. Put tarps over the seats to keep people from spreading out. You can't create atmosphere if people are in isolated pockets all over the stands. It also makes it easier to run the promotions and giveaways that TSM suggested. The team is filling up with prospects so the attraction for the hockey fan to attend is building but the rest works to make going to the games an event which TSM is right to note is vital in Toronto.
These two moves are not without precedent. In 2006 they held the annual rookie tournament at Ricoh and I made it out to see the two games on Saturday. Those crowd numbers give you an idea of how bad I am at judging crowds since I would probably say that there were more along the lines of 1500-2000 people all on one side of the rink between the goal lines. They sold day passes for $15 (I think) or single game tickets for $10. The crowd was packed with fans out to see the futures of both clubs and included a lot of kids. It was boisterous and felt like something I would want to do again. Unfortunately, it bore no resemblance to a regular Marlies game.
Tie that in to cheaper concessions and you'll probably end up actually making money because more people will be at the games. The concessions should not be the same price as the rest of the MLSE empire in just the same way as McDonald's doesn't charge $30 for a burger just because some high-end restaurant does the same. Build better deals and take your lead from the southern hockey markets. The Marlies are essentially in the same boat in that they are trying to sell a product that people are not used to consuming. The problem with wait-times is true of every stadium run by MLSE. At BMO it is a hassle to get any food or beverages at half-time. It has to be considered to be a failure that no thought was given to the fact that the 15 minute half-time break is the only time when most of the crowd will go to eat/use the washrooms. Not to mention the narrow concourses! At the Ricoh it's more an issue of a lack of flexibility for payment. There was only one POS machine for credit/debit payments. That is just unacceptable. Everyone working the concessions is doing their best but they are hamstrung by a lack of foresight on the part of the planners.
Those are just a few of the changes that I would make to improve the Marlies' operations. Anyone here that has been to a game probably has at least a recommendation or two and I'd love to hear them. As Toronto Mike noted they are doing a lot of good work but some major decisions have hampered their efforts. The team, historically, was stocked with proven AHLers rather than Leafs' prospects, ticket prices are out of whack with what the market will bear and what makes sense for a minor league team, and the concessions are a mess.
However, there are a lot of things that they can tap into going forward. Getting to Ricoh is unbelievably easy. TFC has benefitted from it's shared location at the Exhibition stop on GO Transit (for the 905ers) and the TTC streetcar (for city-dwellers). The team is increasingly becoming the stomping ground for the Leafs' future. The team plays lots of weekend matinee games in a recently refurbished building that is actually a great place to watch a hockey game. There is a way to make the Marlies the kind of success that will keep the slanderous charges of Leaf fans not loving hockey (we've had about at least 600 comments here every night during the Leafs-less playoffs) from arising. It's just up to the powers that be to decide that they want to give their staff the tools that they need to succeed.