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Is FirstOntario Centre overkill for OHL?

Hamilton BulldogsFirstOntario Centre was once envisioned as an NHL arena. But with the impending loss of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and the move of a Belleville OHL team there, some are concerned that 9,000 lower-bowl seats may be too many.

One truism in professional sports: demand must outstrip supply for consistent financial success. Teams that end up playing in large facilities — or a facility too larger for the market — don’t generally have the ability to generate demand by limiting supply. If fans know they can just walk up and buy a ticket for an event, they have no incentive to buy that ticket in advance — and there’s always a good chance they just will scrap an intention to attend a game if something better arrives. Advance sales are gold.

Which is why the move of the Belleville Bulls (OHL) to FirstOntario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum) may be a stretch. Truth is, FirstOntario Centre may have been too big for the Hamilton Bulldogs: the team struggled to attract fans in what should have been a solid hockey market. And the challenges faced by the Bulldogs management will be the same for OHL owners. From the Hamilton Spectator:

“I really believe strongly that facility will only serve to enhance the OHL,” [OHL Commissioner David] Branch said in an interview. “Overall we’re excited to be in a major market like Hamilton and in a major facility like FirstOntario Place.”…

With seating capacity of almost 17,400 FirstOntario Place is nearly twice the size of the largest OHL arena, but with special events such as the Subway Canada-Russia series playing a larger role in the league’s growth Branch thinks the extra seating is just what’s needed.

“Special events like that have really helped to grow our brand,” he said. “While there will be some day-to-day challenges in operating in a facility that size, we think it’s better to have an arena that’s too big than too small.”

That may end up being true. Tarping over the upper deck will create some intimacy and drive down operating costs. And, of course, there are plenty of other big events held in the arena that have nothing to do with OHL hockey. But that’s not stopping some in Hamilton to pitch a new arena that’s more suited to the team and the market, perhaps in the 10,000-seat range. With no local politician championing a new arena, it will take a private developer to take a whack at a new-arena project — and with Hamilton sticking with FirstOntario Centre even if the OHL defects, the economics probably don’t make sense.

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