The Ticats are changing the fan game

Watching live sports is definitely a passion of mine. It’s what I’ve grown up with. Like many, trips to stadiums and arenas to see the hometown team have been an important component in fostering bonds with family and friends. It’s a night out with the buddies or a parent taking their child to the game as a nostalgic rite-of-passage that’s been done for generations. Well, stereotypically speaking, anyway. But the game is changing. It’s evolving. How we consume or participate in, live sports is different than it was, say, 15 years ago. And the smart sports franchises are adapting.

This evolution is front and centre as you approach Tim Hortons Field for a Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ home game. And really, a massive mutation took place the moment shovels hit the ground for the stadium’s construction. Like many who grew up in the area, I’ve been raised on Ticats’ football. And boy oh boy there’ve been some mighty lean years I’ve had to endure as a result. The team’s rank in the standings aside, many fond memories were created after passing through the gates of the old Ivor Wynne Stadium. To me, and many in these parts, that place was a shrine. It was a living, breathing part of our city’s football history. It was simple, it was cramped, it was all-kinds-of uncomfortable, it often had a volatile atmosphere, it was a tough spot for opponents and we took pride in its rustic, historical character.

However, even as adjustments were made, the old stadium was a place you went to watch football. Not much more, not much less. “Ivor Wynne was a theatre for football”, says Steve Lowe, Sr. Director of Fan Experience. “You sat on your bench seat and watched the game. It was an intimate environment and we all loved it.”

The fan experience was almost completely tied to what happened that day out on the field. Up until Bob Young acquired the team, the stadium merely offered fans the bare basics. The scoreboard gave you the score, the concession stands provided sustenance and a bit of fan-fuel. But the overwhelming onus was on the fans themselves to generate an enjoyable experience.

Opening the doors to Tim Horton’s Field revealed a plethora of new opportunities to create a memorable, exciting and fun fan experience. And that creates opportunities to engage a whole new segment of the population – a segment that older stadium formats may have had difficulty offering a product that appealed to them.

“We still have phenomenal if not better sightlines,” Lowe continued, “but the configuration gives you 360-degree access to the entire stadium – enabling much more congregating and socializing while still being able to watch the game.”

The principle is pretty simple. Rather than jamming fans into their seats for the game, Tim Horton’s Field offers free-flowing places for people to gather. There are options o’ plenty to enjoy the game however you want – a luxury that’s made possible with the stadium’s layout. Tiger-Cats’ game day has always been a social occasion. Part of this aforementioned evolution has been enhancing this element – giving fans the opportunity to enjoy the game and the atmosphere in a number of different ways.

Encouraging newer, younger fans through the turnstiles has become a major priority for the Canadian Football League and the Ticats are no different. A more social, less-regimented game day experience is resonating with younger demographics as well as those who are less familiar with the team.

“There is that segment of millennials as well as those from multi-cultural backgrounds who may not have football in their blood,” Darcy Raymond, Vice President, Marketing Communication, explains. “But they’re proud to be in Hamilton. This is where we have concert acts, activities and attractions to invite and welcome those people out to a game. This is your team, too.”

One planned concert act, in particular, has the potential to entice a strong showing of this cohort into the stadium. On July 19th when the Saskatchewan Roughriders come to town, the halftime show will feature a performance by The Beaches. This Toronto-based Alt-Rock act is enjoying rapidly expanding popularity – snagging Breakthrough Group of the year at this year’s Juno Awards.

Raymond also talked about his experience in Major League Baseball where studies have shown younger fans prefer to sample a range of sports and entertainment experiences. This is a marked contrast to previous generations who were more apt to immerse themselves in a particular team. This puts additional pressure on all those involved in the development of the Ticats’ game-day operations. To win over younger and newer fans, providing a solid experience is essential.

The fan experience at Tim Horton’s Field starts outside the gates. While some may lament it, I’ve always loved the neighbourhood setting of Ivor Wynne and now Tim Horton’s Field. This creates this unique, community feeling that gives pre-game tailgating a different look. There just aren’t many stadiums where you and your crew can park on someone’s front lawn and enjoy a semi-concealed beer with them. Where your walk to the stadium includes porches clad with Ticats’ “East End Proud” flags, the music of all genres pumps out the open windows, radios tuned to the pre-game show can be heard, and you join in small-talk and cheers with anyone and everyone. This is where you feel Hamilton’s pulse.

When you enter the stadium gates that similar ‘urban tailgate’ atmosphere comes along with you. It doesn’t end at kick-off either. You could easily spend all 4 quarters at different areas within the stadium and never actually get to your seat.

The Stipley Bar
The largest outdoor bar in Canada

The location of the Stipley Bar makes it an impressive sight for everyone in attendance. Situated in the south end zone, The Stipley is a massive bar that, itself, provides 360 degrees of service and, at about 100 yards of total length – is the biggest outdoor bar in Canada. Each game features a live cover band to check out, too. Even the décor of this bar is pretty cool – plenty of homage to the neighbourhoods of Hamilton. For many fans, this will be the first stop after making their way into the stadium. This area is open 90 minutes before kickoff and now, in partnership with Saltlick Smokehouse, there’s even a pregame pig roast. As an extra incentive to check out some of the game from here, it’s now home to the infamous Ticats’ Touchdown Whistle. So, depending on who you’re with, you could end up stuck here for a while.

The Craft Gardens
Serving local Bench Brewing’s craft beers and home to LaBalsama Taco Stand

Without having to walk too far from The Stipley, just inside the concourse under the east-stands, you come to The Craft Gardens. This is a really cool spot with creatively designed standing tables where fans can enjoy a local craft brew and even a spicy bite from the taco stand. It’s a perfect set up to gather with a small group and enjoy something a little bit different than what you might find in other parts of the stadium. The attention to detail here is well done. The bar itself is a beautiful work of reclaimed wood that was custom-made by Hamilton’s own Rustic Designs by Rich. The artwork that complements the space is by local artist, Richard Mace of Street Art Hamilton – his urban styles can be found throughout the city.

Coors Light Patio
Mixing and mingling behind the north end zone

Summertime is all about spending time on a patio. Tim Horton’s Field gives fans the chance to mix and mingle behind the north end zone. General admission tickets can be purchased to spend the game hanging out here; plus, access is open to all ticket holders like The Stipley at the opposite end, logistically it’s a great meet-up point and offers a nice vantage point to view the game.

Coors Banquet Bar
Bringing country music, good times and football together

The original themed bar area of the stadium, The Coors Banquet Bar brings country music and football together. Whether you’re a country music fan or not, this place is worth checking out. The popularity of this area – which is often packed from before kick-off until the final gun – is what precipitated the development of other hospitality areas within the stadium. DJ’s spin country tunes all game long while plenty of big screens allow you to keep an eye on the game during your visit.

The Ticats have definitely been active players in recognizing and leveraging the bursting HamOnt-pride that’s caught on in the last decade or so. Mike Hardill, the club’s Sr. Manager, Marketing & Digital, notes how this element has been picked up in the team’s marketing tactics as well as in-stadium engagement efforts. “Our organization has been clearly influenced by this in our branding campaigns. This is something that’s organically happening here in the city – we’re participating in that and proud to be along for the ride.”

The culmination of the seemingly-endless efforts by the Ticats staff appears to be paying off. Not only do they have a string of sellouts dating back to the Tim Horton’s Field opening, they are making inroads with younger demographics. Both Hardill and Lowe mentioned that they are seeing ticket purchasers – season ticket holders – beginning to skew younger. Although there are still plenty of challenges, this bodes well for the long-term health of the franchise. It means newer generations of fans are interested in experiencing Tiger-Cats football – even if the football is only part of the reason they’ve bought a ticket. But, as Darcy Raymond so perfectly reminds, “the number one driver in generating a positive fan experience is other fans.” Knowing that heading down to the stadium is a near-guarantee of a good time reinforces that positive experience with each visit – paying off in return visits. And, while Hamilton sure loves a winner, a fun fan experience can help mitigate the effects of the odd losing season. From the moment you hop off the bus or park your car, you realize that a day at Tim Horton’s Field is about a lot more than just football.

“This is an outdoor festival with 24,000 people that you get to experience 10 or 11 times year.” – Steve Lowe, Senior Director of Fan Experience.