Winning trophies and selling tickets — the business side of sports in northern Ontario

With the regular season wrapping up and the playoffs underway, teams in northern Ontario are taking stock of their ticket sales. And like in the standings, some are doing better than others.

Sudbury Wolves bring in $58,000 per game, while it's $44,000 for the Sudbury Five

The Sudbury Five has drawn close to 2,000 fans per game to the Sudbury Arena, while their hockey cousins the Sudbury Wolves have averaged about 3,100. (Erik White/CBC )

Other hockey teams told the Sudbury Wolves they were crazy to welcome a competitor into their own arena.

CEO Scott Lund says his Ontario Hockey League colleagues couldn't understand why the team would want to bring in a professional basketball team.

But in the first season of the Sudbury Five, the National Basketball League team drew more fans than expected, and the Wolves numbers were also up slightly.

"It's a different crew. It's younger, it's more female, there's more family," Lund says.

Vice-president of basketball operations, Bob Johnston, says it was a "guessing game" how many fans would come to see the Five in its first year, but they set an average crowd of 1,500 as a goal for a break-even season.

With three regular season home games still to play, the Five are sitting at an average attendance of about 2,000.

Johnston says one of the key decisions they made was not to give many tickets away, a trap many first-year teams fall into.

"What you do is you undervalue the product and people expect tickets to be given away, and they just don't come to the games," he says, adding that ticket sales make up about 70 per cent of the team's revenue. 

Scott Lund is the CEO of Sudbury Wolves Sports Entertainment. (Erik White/CBC)

Lund says the average revenue for a Five game, once you factor in concessions and other money, is $44,000. For the Wolves, he says it's $58,000, but the profit is greater for a Five game, because the operating costs are lower.

The Ontario Hockey League club drew an average crowd of 3,100 to the Sudbury Arena this season, up a couple hundred from last season, but about 1,500 less than what the Wolves were was bringing in a decade ago.

"They talk about the hey day. And who knows if the hey day ever happens again. Life's a lot different now," Lund says.

He says the long-term goal is to get another 1,000 fans to the average Wolves game, which would mean an extra $1 million in the bank.

Right now, ticket sales bring in about $1.3 million a season, while concession revenue is $600,000.

Lund says for now the Wolves want to get the average attendance up to around 3,700 in the next couple of seasons, anticipating a move to a new arena on the Kingsway, when an expected 25 per cent boost from a new building would see them play to full houses.

The Sudbury Five plan to survey fans in the remaining three home games of the season to better understand their base and how much they might be pulling customers away from the Sudbury Wolves. (Erik White/CBC)

The Soo Greyhounds drew an average crowd of 4,000 this season to GFL Memorial Gardens, but their attendance is also down a few hundred from a decade ago when the downtown arena was brand new.

The North Bay Battalion had the smallest crowds in the OHL this year, with an average draw of 2,350. That's down by 1,000 from when the team first moved into the revamped Memorial Gardens in 2013.

"Our attendance was flat, certainly you're always trying to improve, and hopefully we've stopped the bleeding where our attendance dropped significantly," team president Mike Griffin says, adding that the Battalion's luxury suite and corporate sales are up. 

He says the team has been losing money in recent years and losing more games on the ice. 

"I think every market has its own fickleness. In North Bay there seems to be a sense that if you're not winning, people turn you off," Griffin says.

"At the end of the day, you could have all kinds of dog shows out there at intermission, if your team's not winning, that's not going to bring them back in."

But Griffin says he has absolutely no worry about the team leaving North Bay, like the once successful Centennials did back in 2002. 

"That's not even a consideration, not even a thought," he says.

It was standing room only for the first home game for the North Bay Battalion back in 2013, but the team has played before smaller and smaller crowds since then. (Erik White/CBC )

Ticket sales are not as vital one step down the hockey ladder in the Junior A Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League.

That's because for the last decade or so players pay between $5,000 and $6,000 a season to suit up and get the chance to land a college scholarship or a professional contract.

Without that revenue, there's no way teams like the Soo Thunderbirds, who sell only 190 tickets per game, could survive.

"There's absolutely no way. It would be impossible," says general manager Trevor Zachary.

Some of the smaller towns in the NOJHL actually play before the biggest crowds.

The French River Rapids sell about 300 tickets for their home games, despite playing in a town where the population is only 2,500.

President and general manager Paul Frustaglio says even with good numbers at the gate and player fees, costs such as $80,000 in travel expenses sees the team — which is run by a non-profit corporation — lose between $2,000 and $10,000.

The Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League is requiring all players, coaches, referees and billet families to be fully vaccinated, but has yet to decide if it will do the same for fans. (Hearst Lumberjacks)

"I believe as long as there is local ownership and people willing to understand it's an opportunity to provide great entertainment for the local community, you have a chance of breaking even," Frustaglio says.

The top attendance title in the NOJHL goes to the Timmins Rock with an average crowd of 799, but right behind them is the Hearst Lumberjacks, which draws about 726 people from the town of 4,500 to each of its games.

"During the summer people are telling you 'I can't wait for the winter for the Lumberjacks to play,'" says team vice-president Jonathan Blier.

"So it's pretty awesome."

Still, he says "like any business" the Lumberjacks are expecting ups and downs in the coming years, and are trying to save for winters when the stands aren't quite as full.


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to


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