Inside the CFL: With fans back on bandwagon, Alouettes ride the wave
|Montreal Gazette 08 Nov 2019 at 19:44|
“I’m excited to see the stadium full … for the first time in a long time and give the team a legitimate, a real home-field advantage,” the Alouettes president said this week. “I’m excited, thrilled and proud.
“I’d like to think this is a momentum builder. I’d like to think this is a manifestation of a lot of the work that’s been put in, obviously over the course of this season,” he added. “But, arguably, over the course of my last … going on three seasons.”
In this improbable season of firsts for the Als — a team that fired head coach Mike Sherman days before its opening game, then abruptly terminated general manager Kavis Reed in July, and is operating without an owner — they’re preparing for Sunday’s East Division semifinal against Edmonton, their first playoff appearance since 2014.
Montreal Alouettes president and CEO Patrick Boivin is flanked by assistant general manager of player personnel Joe Mack, left, and head coach Khari Jones at a news conference about the firing of general manager Kavis Reed on July 14, 2019. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette
That also means Boivin will preside over what he hopes is his first extended post-season run since being hired in December 2016.
It’s hardly been smooth sailing for the president or this franchise, which hasn’t filled its home venue since Oct. 2, 2016, against Toronto — a game that coincided with Jacques Chapdelaine’s first game as head coach, the first time a francophone was this club’s bench boss.
Montreal always will be a hockey city, first and foremost. But it also remains an event city, its citizens waiting five years for a CFL elimination contest. And let’s face it, there hasn’t exactly been a bounty of Canadiens or Impact playoff games lately.
The Als announced Thursday that close to 20,000 tickets had been sold and tarps were going to be removed, making an additional 1,600 seats available. More coverings can be unfastened, if necessary, up to a capacity of nearly 23,500.
Boivin understands this is only the beginning and plenty of work remains. Packing the stadium, one time, for a playoff game, is relatively easy, but it must be sustained. And the only way that can be accomplished for an organization that, Boivin has admitted, regularly gives away 2,000-6,000 tickets each game because they can’t be sold, is by fielding a consistently competitive team and making each contest its own unique event.
“Building on what we accomplished this year, but not taking the foot off the gas,” he said.
Nonetheless, Boivin remains cautiously optimistic. People he hasn’t spoken with for a year, even two, are reaching out to him requesting tickets, jumping back onto the bandwagon that had plenty of miles on the odometer between 2000 and 2010, when the Als went to eight Grey Cups, winning three.
“You can sense there’s a real appetite for this, whether they’re casual or more intense fans who are coming back to loving the Alouettes after having missed it for several years,” he said. “They’re coming back. They’re happy and proud. Everything that was pushed aside is now coming back to the surface. They want to be a part of it.”
Boivin said he can measure the increased interest by the number of season-ticket renewals, even new sales that are trending ahead of expectations. This for a team that has approximately 8,500 season-ticket subscribers and averaged 17,525 per game, according to announced attendance figures.
“One season of showing your fans that you’re back and you start building up that trust with them, that belief,” Boivin said. “Ultimately, it’s convincing a new generation of fans it’s an event. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“Games like these, events like Sunday where the Als sell out their stadium. Even with a modified seating inventory we’re going to sell out what’s available,” he continued. “You have an event, you have victory, these emotional triggers that get pulled for 20,000 people. That’s what you build on. That’s what you want to bring into next season.”
When the Als return to Molson Stadium next June, presumably it will be with a new ownership group, but with head coach Khari Jones, whose contract expires after this season, still patrolling the sidelines.
It’s still believed brothers Jeffrey and Peter Lenkov, in partnership with Montreal-based Claridge Investment Ltd., remain the front-runners — although, according to a source, some recent complications have surfaced, further slowing the process.
As for Jones, Boivin realizes he’ll be highly in demand should he reach the open market, and that much of the goodwill derived from his hiring would evaporate in an instant and create player unrest if he leaves. Boivin regularly speaks to Jones and has finally reached out to his agent, Gil Scott, to begin the negotiation process normally handled by a GM.
Otherwise, Boivin is reluctant to talk about the coach or the impending sale, wanting the focus to be on Sunday’s game.
“There’s a calm confidence this team’s ready for it,” Boivin said. “All year, the guys have been building towards this … certainly thinking, at the very least, they could make it to this part in the calendar. Who knows how far else we can go?”