Cheers & beers

Fans foam over price of suds at Mile One. Beer would be fourth most expensive in NHL, but arena GM says it keeps costs down for taxpayers

Daniel MacEachern dmaceachern@thetelegram.com
Published on March 2, 2012
— Telegram illustration

Hockey fan Jeff Lush was excited when professional hockey returned to St. John’s this past fall.

The Memorial University commerce student, along with a couple of friends, spent about $1,000 for a season ticket, but he was surprised at how much he found he’d have to spend to enjoy a beer or two at a game.

At Mile One, it’s $6 for a 12-ounce bottle of beer.

“When I went to the home-opener — whenever you buy any product, you kind of have a price in your head of what it’s going to be. And then when you arrive to the cash register and the price is higher than that, you’re somewhat shocked. If you go downtown or any hotel, it’s between $4.25 and $5.50 (for a bottle of beer).”

Lush said he knows premium prices are charged at premium events, but when he consulted a National Hockey League (NHL) marketing report, he was surprised to find that — on a per-ounce basis — Mile One beer, at 50 cents an ounce, would be tied for the fourth most expensive beer in the NHL this season, behind only Montreal, Nashville and Columbus.

“I was immediately, like, something is not right here. This is definitely a gouging situation. That caused me to start asking the question and look around. I think with the excitement of hockey coming back, I think the opportunity to rip off the consumer and take advantage is definitely there. Combined with the popularity of (St. John’s IceCaps president) Danny Williams, I think this was ripe for taking advantage of people.”

He’s not the only fan who thinks so. Several IceCaps ticket holders interviewed by The Telegram suggested they were concerned by the cost of suds, Although none said the price would stop them from buying beer, a few said the cost would keep them from buying more than one or two.

James Goodwin said he was shocked when he saw the price of beer at his first IceCaps game.

“I was born and raised in Toronto, so I’m used to excessive beer prices, like if you go to a Jays game or Maple Leafs. But I’d been in New Brunswick the last few years. I went to a whole bunch of (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) games in Saint John, and I think it was $3 a beer there,” he said. “And while I understand the AHL team is a semi-pro team while the QMJHL team was an amateur league, in terms of quality of play, they’re on par with each other — if the QMJHL’s not just a little bit better. And I was shocked what they’re making the fans pay.”

”You’re a captive audience once you’re in there. I wouldn’t brand myself an alcoholic, but I certainly would like a beer or two while I’m at a hockey game.”

Lush took his concerns to the Ice Caps via a letter early in the season, pointing out the per-ounce price was more expensive than most NHL arenas (as well as pointing to other problems with the game experience that Lush says have improved as the season has gone on).

Rob Mullowney, the IceCaps’ vice-president of operations, responded to Lush, saying he thinks the price of beer is fair.

“I have no concerns with the price of beer. That said, Mile One Centre sets all food and beverage pricing,” he wrote. “Given the sales volume over the past six games, it would appear that the pricing has been set appropriately.”

Beer at IceCaps games is also priced comparably with other Canadian AHL franchises — except for Abbotsford, B.C. A 12-ounce beer at the Abbotsford Sports and Entertainment Centre, where the Heat play, will set you back $4.75. Toronto Marlies fans pay $6.50 for 14 ounces of beer at Ricoh Coliseum, a slightly better per-ounce rate than in St. John’s, while thirsty fans at Copps Coliseum, where the Hamilton Bulldogs play, pay $6.50 for 12 ounces. All three other Canadian AHL arenas serve draft beer.

Mullowney told the Telegram that while food and beverage operations aren’t the IceCaps’ direct responsibility, they do provide regular feedback to Mile One administration.

“It’s certainly our understanding that they’re working hard on their end to make improvements, whether it’s on what I would describe as product choice as well as service, as two examples.”

He added he doesn’t think the prices have anything to do with taking advantage of giddy fans who are glad to have professional hockey back.

“They have operational costs that they need to recoup. There’s obviously going to be a margin put on a product, and supply and demand — it’s normal economics,” he said.

Bill Thistle, general manager of St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, which runs Mile One, acknowledged that the arena’s beer is on the high end for the St. John’s market, but he says there’s a reason for that.

“That’s the way we priced it and I guess we’ll continue to price it into the future, basically,” he said. “It’s one of our major sources of revenue here to try to keep costs of the building down for taxpayers. It’s one of our revenue streams.”

Thistle added that Mile One didn’t examine markets other than St. John’s before setting the price of the beer, preferring to keep it at the high end for the city. “We’re trying to keep the cost down for the taxpayer and let the people who use the building pay for the building.”

Thistle pointed out the price of beer is the same for concerts. “It really has nothing to do with the hockey team,” he said.

As for why the arena serves bottled beer rather than draft, Thistle said it’s because before hockey started back up, the length of time between events at the arena was a factor. But they will be reconsidering.

“We’re going to look at it again. We got away from draft because when you have concerts, you might have a concert in July and another one at the end of September. Draft beer doesn’t hold up well,” he said. “So that is one of the things that we’ll be looking at. We’ll be looking at pouring rates and stuff like that, as well. That’s all part of our process as we make changes for the hockey.”

Thistle declined to say how much beer is sold during IceCaps games, beyond “We do well.”

And the fans — even the ones who griped about the price — say the price isn’t high enough to stop them from buying it altogether.

“I don’t know where my quit price is, but they could probably charge close to 10 bucks a bottle before I’d finally just give up,” said Goodwin.

And Lush, who wrote the letter to IceCaps management, said he’d prefer Mile One to switch to draft beer, which would be an easy way to drop the price. He says six bucks is the limit to what he’d pay for a beer right now.

And despite the price of beer, there’s a big reason he’s glad he got season tickets for the Atlantic Division-leading IceCaps: “The on-ice product has been outstanding.”

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com

Twitter: TelegramDaniel

Fact box:

Most expensive NHL beer prices

                         price      size    cents per ounce

1. Montreal Canadiens     $9.94     16 oz    62.1

2. Columbus Blue Jackets     $6.75     12 oz        56.3

2. Nashville Predators      $6.75     12 oz    56.3

4. Florida Panthers           $8.00    16 oz    50.0

4. Detroit Red Wings        $6.00    12 oz     50.0

4. Phoenix Coyotes          $8.00    16 oz    50.0

St. John’s IceCaps          $6.00     12 oz       50.0

NHL average            $6.80     16 oz    42.5

27. New York Rangers     $7.50      24 oz    31.3

27. Washington Capitals      $7.50      24 oz    31.3

27. Buffalo Sabres        $5.00      16 oz    31.3

30. Colorado Avalanche       $6.25      24 oz        26.0

Canadian AHL beer prices

1. Hamilton Bulldogs      $6.50    12 oz       54.2

2. St. John’s IceCaps     $6.00    12 oz      50.0

3. Toronto Marlies          $6.50    14 oz       46.4

4. Abbotsford Heat         $4.75    12 oz       39.6