The steep price of being a major league sports fan

Costs of attending in-person games harp on accessibility and fan engagement

The Toronto Maple Leafs are the most valued team in the NHL worth $2.8 billion USD, the Montreal Canadiens, third most valuable team worth $2.3 billion USD. Photo Ava Shahkarami

Creo has been a devoted Toronto Raptors fan since he was seven and attended his first Raptors game when he was eight. 

Today, the 30-year-old Toronto-based musician and content creator has been to over 20 games throughout his 20 years of fandom. Recently, at the Dec. 15 game at Scotiabank Arena, he bought his row 16 ticket from a family friend for a discounted price of $200. Creo said the price tag hurt his bank account; "I remember when you could get a pair [of tickets] for $250," he said.

"The bar for entry is so much higher now for new fans to go experience," claimed Creo.

Creo explained how the communal involvement of watching a game is integral to the fan experience. But because of higher prices, the fan experience is robbed, he reasoned. For instance, cheering with the crowd, finding a temporary friend in a neighbouring seat, or capturing juvenile memories. He recalled a memory he had as a child at a Raptors game where he returned the ball that rolled off the court to one of the players, noting younger fans miss out on these experiences with remarkably high ticket prices.

As of October 2023, the team was valued at about $4.1 billion USD, with an average ticket price of $85 USD. The Link viewed prices for the Dec. 15 game on prior to the playoff, where ticket costs ranged from about $60 to $3,679 CAD.

Hockey is Creo's least favourite of the four major North American sports, but he 'speaks hockey' fluently. The high ticket prices have deterred him from attending games. He also believes the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a victim of overpricing for years.

The Leafs won their 13th Stanley Cup in 1967; Forbes assesses the Leafs' value at $2.8 billion USD, awarding them the title of the NHL's most valuable team. The Leafs may not have recently been awarded a Cup, but they have been crowned by Curiocity with having the most expensive tickets in the NHL, averaging around $150 USD, according to Forbes. The Link viewed prices on for admission to the Leafs versus Ottawa Senators on December 27, where the cost of a single ticket ranged between $166.25 and $1,353.22 CAD before taxes and Ticketmaster fees.

The parent company for the Raptors and Leafs is Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), a sports conglomerate valued around $8 billion USD. It also owns some of Canada's most prominent sports teams like Toronto FC, Toronto Argonauts and their home arenas.

Creo suggests that Toronto major league sports suffer from an overall decreased engagement from fans in the arena, as increased prices dish out seats only for those in higher socioeconomic brackets and corporate events.

"[The arena] feels more quiet, feels more stale. It doesn't feel like the crowd is living and dying with the team in the same way that it was," Creo said. 

As Scotiabank Arena, which hosts both Raptors and Leafs, inches closer to its 25th anniversary next month, the building is currently undergoing renovations worth more than $350 million CAD. Some of these renovation costs cater directly to nursing the corporate quarters: The new Mastercard Lounge with packages starting at $60,000—and a refurbished private suite on the 200 level exceeds an annual cost of $500,000 including tickets for 12 people. 

According to insurance company Dundaslife, $59,300 was the average Canadian's annual salary in 2022, suggesting these suites in Scotiabank Arena are virtually impossible for the average Canadian to access.

"When you get something for free, or when something doesn't cost as much to you, it—for the most part—is almost never as valuable," said Creo. "A lot of tickets are corporate or gifts from your rich parents […] a lot of those people don't care about the actual team and the sport; it's more about turning the basketball game into an event."

Parsa Kermani Pour, a 19-year-old second-year student at Toronto Metropolitan University, attended his first Raptors game on Dec. 18. His section 107 tickets were given to him by the parents of a child he tutors, who he described as “quite wealthy.” He only recently got into basketball yet never considered buying tickets for himself.

"I was actually looking at the prices. I thought the tickets that I'd been given were like $50, $40 tickets and then I went on the website and saw they were $150 each. I'm like, who is affording this?" Kermani Pour said, "It should not be priced this way [...] I would never pay over a hundred bucks for what I saw."

"MLSE has a very valuable product, and the people that are going to the games […] are very loyal and willing to pay a lot of money to go," David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management told The Link.

“The tickets are so expensive that the only people who can attend the games tend to be pretty advanced in their career," he said.

He asserted how the Leafs, in particular, garner far more demand than there are seats. Scotiabank Arena during Leaf games holds a capacity of 18,819. In comparison, the Bell Centre has a capacity of 21,302 during Habs games.

Soberman considers Toronto the biggest hockey market in the world. "There is no metropolitan area in the world with so many hockey fans," he said. "They've only got limited seats; it's a limited capacity business problem, and so what [MLSE is] trying to do is maximize the return from something that has a limited capacity."

Soberman believes sports games are luxuries. He continued to note Canada is a capitalist country, and companies like MLSE should be able to charge the price the market will bear as they "have a right to earn a return on those investments."

Soberman agrees those working minimum wage jobs will struggle to obtain Leafs tickets, to which he added if a Leafs game was filled with equal representations of different segments of society, "the incentive to own the Leafs wouldn't be there."

"I understand [up-pricing] in a way when the team is good and when the team is winning [...] But the Leafs have not won in two of my lifetimes," said Creo. "What are you expensive for? I understand things being more expensive when they come with excellence, but [MLSE] teams are bad. I don't understand how you justify putting a subpar product on the ice for so much money."

Toronto is the only Canadian city with an NBA, NHL and MLB team. This means they set the tone for the rest of Canada's sports markets, like Montreal's Bell Centre. 

The Bell Centre is the sole NHL arena in Canada that imposes game-day prices on fans comparable to those of the Leafs. The Montreal Canadiens are ranked by Forbes as the third highest valued team in the NHL, with a team value of $2.3 billion USD and an average ticket price of $100 USD, the second highest cost out of all Canadian NHL teams. Habs fans dealing with similarly costly tickets draw parallels to the financial obstacles Toronto fans face with their teams and the frustration felt by fans like Creo.

"Fans are emotional, and so decisions that teams make have a long-term effect on your fanbases going forward," said Creo. "We want to keep loving our sports and loving our guys, but it's hard to do when we can't afford to go."

An MLSE spokesperson told The Link there are several variables that determine how they price tickets, from the date and opponent to fan engagement levels. 

“Playing in one of the top sports and entertainment markets in North America, Maple Leafs and Raptors ticketing pricing is a reflection of our market conditions including the demand for the product in the city,” they said.

This article originally appeared in Volume 44, Issue 8, published January 16, 2024.