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Column: Where have the fans gone?

An opinion piece on the latest Riders' game.
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You have to wonder why the Riders attendance hasn’t been better since the CFL resumed at the start of the 2021 season.

ESTEVAN — For the first time in four years, I was able to make it to a Saskatchewan Roughriders’ home game Sunday.

My folks were in town as they continue to make their way back to B.C. at the end of their cross-Canada trip, and Dad and I thought it would be a good idea to watch the Riders take on the Toronto Argonauts. Ironically, the last time we went to a game was also between Saskatchewan and Toronto, but that was in Toronto.

Granted, this game had a lot going against it when it came to fan support. It was supposed to be played Saturday, but had to be pushed back a day due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the Riders. There were some players on the Riders unable to play. And the Green and White were starting their No. 3 quarterback. He certainly showed why he was a third-string quarterback. 

Not exactly a recipe for a game that will appear on ESPN Classic for years to come.

Saskatchewan actually held the lead in the fourth quarter, but ultimately lost by 10.

But still, you have to wonder why the Riders attendance hasn’t been better since the CFL resumed at the start of the 2021 season.

The first game in 2021, against the B.C. Lions, was a sellout. And they had a great crowd on Labour Day last year against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but that’s Labour Day. You could have a Labour Day game in which both teams are 0-9 to start the season, and it would still draw a big crowd.

The announced crowds have been fine, usually north of 25,000, but still thousands of fans short of a sellout. The actual attendance has been much lower. A lot of nights, it seems like there are more empty green seats than green-clad fans in the stands.

We’re not at the point in which we’re going to be seeing a Save the Riders Telethon any time soon, and the Riders’ brass hasn’t sounded alarm bells about the future of the team, but the number of fans present has been disappointing.

Last year fans were pointing to the proof of vaccination policy as a reason for the disappointing crowds, but the crowds were low even before that requirement was enacted. (Last August, people were saying a proof of vaccination policy would help). Bottom line, the majority of people in Saskatchewan were double-vaccinated, even last summer and fall, and the vast majority of those in Saskatoon and Regina had two doses of the vaccine.

Last year the CFL was not an entertaining product, and that definitely played a factor in the high volume of empty seats. But the league has made changes to make the game more exciting to watch. Those have paid off, although a lot of work remains before the CFL gets back to 60 points a game we once saw.

Some people might still believe they aren’t getting enough bang for their buck.

A lot of people want to see lower ticket prices. Sometimes I think the CFL forgets its place in the football hierarchy. In terms of the calibre of players, it’s the No. 2 football league on the planet. But it’s not the NFL, and its tickets need to be affordable.

For a family of four from outside of greater Regina area to attend a game, it’s expensive, especially if you want to watch from excellent seats. You also have to factor in food, drinks, fuel costs and possibly even a hotel, along with anything else associated with the cost of a game.

However, the Riders and other teams will point out that if they lower the price of tickets, they have to sell a proportionately higher number of tickets.

Yes, a large crowd looks better on TV, but will revenues be better if tickets are lower?

Is going to a Rider game the same priority that it was three years ago, even for season ticket holders? Or are they looking at other options for summer entertainment, especially this summer, which is the closest we’ve had to a normal summer in terms of opportunities?

It’s still fun going to a Rider game. Mosaic Stadium is still a wonderful place to watch a game – the best in the league. And the fans are still passionate. But it is frustrating to see so many empty seats at a Rider game, even if it’s a rescheduled game happening at 5 p.m. on a Sunday night.