Monday, December 10, 2007

Why Is Attendance Down?

1) To start this blog entry we feel the need to employ a popular Mark Twain phrase: "There are Lies, damned lies, and there are statistics" by having to again mention the method that the NHL uses to determine it's attendance figures is a joke. They use the number of tickets distributed. Not the number sold, or number of folks who are actually at the game. While the ladder figure would be the ideal, we'd settle on the former to at least gauge what income a team is attaining, and not the number of freebies/comp tickets a team is distributing.

It was one thing to see/hear about empty seats in traditionally poor southern markets or in cities with bad teams, but this season there seems to be a disturbing trend developing; namely good teams in traditionally good US markets are having attendance issues!

2) Gary Bettman can talk about 'cost certainty' till he's blue in the face, but as many had postulated, there are always unintended consequences to a year without hockey then a huge change in the way the league does its finances. In this case, the object of the salary cap was to ostensibly help the smaller markets compete for talent that before the cap would usually go to the larger revenue teams .

3) Through about 1/3 of the season there have to be some disturbing trends that the board of governors have to be worried about. Even with Bettman's silly proclamation that the league set an attendance record for November.

  • Detroit- despite having one of the best/most exciting team to watch, the Wings play before less than a 90% full Joe Lewis Arena. This was supposed to be "Hockey Town", remember? One of the hardest tickets to come by. Not anymore. We don't buy the argument that the local economy is the cause.

  • Colorado- WAS the most difficult ticket to get of a US based hockey team. Not anymore. Gone are the days of consecutive sell outs. Now the team is barely breaking 90%. Shocking. The team hasn't really had any true down years either, They spent $$ to improve, have a good core of young exciting players and have been in contention for their division most of the season.

  • Chicago- An original six team in one of the biggest US markets. Have 2 of the most exciting young players. Have been quite competitive all season. yet they play to the LOWEST % of fans, a dismal almost embarrassing 66.7%! We understand the Wirtz factor of alienating their fans for years, but he's now gone and the team is exciting to watch/in contention

4) Sure, Gary will point to the significant gains made in St. Louis, Carolina, and Pittsburgh, and even New Jersey as examples. However, those numbers should be tempered with a dose of reality:

  • The Blues had to significantly lower ticket prices to re-attract fans back. They also had no where to go but up! It doesn't hurt that they've been playing very well. The same can be said of Carolina. Just a year removed from a Cup, they didn't enjoy much of a honeymoon with poor attendance last season. Its improved this year, but is it a stable following?

  • While the Devils increase is significant, they are playing in a brand new arena. In reality they SHOULD be playing in front of packed/full houses, instead of the relatively embarrassing 85% full figure we are seeing thus far. If they fall from contention will the Rock be even more empty? So much for 'If you build it they will come'!

5) Which leads us to ask, why? What is the cause of this problem? There are many proposed causes. Some say its too early to make such claims, but we say it's not too early to point out that the NHL continues to lose ground in certain U.S. markets, including some long-standing hockey towns. Or that some franchises are badly run and poorly located, a reality that won't be altered by any of the changes meant to make the game more appealing.

  • The Lockout! Yes, its been 2 years since the SECOND Gary Bettman imposed work stoppage, but the after effects are still profound! While the Canadian markets have shown no weakness, and in fact are as strong as ever, the US where hockey was struggling before the second Bettman lockout is on life support. The league gets minimal press coverage. Their national TV contract is with a channel that many can't find/don't have. Even local TV ratings are in the toilet in most areas. In some, the announcers could call each viewer by name if they wanted!

  • The Salary Cap- Yes, the same device we were told would solve all the ills of the game may be contributing to its demise? Some have surmised (and we're not yet sold on the idea) is that the cap prevents some teams from spending money to improve their teams, and as a result fans aren't as excited(especially in big markets) like they were in years past. Certainly, its not yet a sure thing that the cap is helping to financially stabilize the small (non-Canadian) franchises. Which is why we are hearing that expansion is no longer on the front burner. That its possible/likely that we will see a franchise move before anew one is established.

  • Less fighting=less intense rivalries? It was thought that the unbalanced schedule would fire up old rivalries and create newer ones to increase/revive fan interest. The NHL forgot though what helps increase those rivalries, and that is fighting. Nothing gets fans going like an emotion filled contest. What aids in generating emotion? Scoring, yes. A meaningful game, of course. However, NOTHING creates more emotion/intensity than a fight, or the potential for a fight. Next game you go to, watch the crowd during a scrap, and immediately afterwards. The interest in whats going on the ice increases immeasurably, and that can/will carry over.

  • Too many teams! As we have written in the past about how to improve the game we have proposed contraction. There simply are too many franchises in cities that don't deserve them/haven't supported them. Its time to cut bait and move on. We won't list them here again, but if the league moved the bottom 2 teams into Canada where they'd sure to get a huge following(Winnipeg/Hamilton, etc) then contracted another 2 or so teams the overall health of the NHL would improve immeasurably.


DMG said...

While I agree with most of this, I'm not the sure the examples give of areas the NHL needs to be concerned with can't be easily explained due to other factors:

Detroit is struggling economically at least as much, if not more, than any other NHL market, so demand for tickets is understandably down. I think fans in Detroit are also a little spoiled. With the Wings having so much success every year I think a lot of them have a 'wake me when it's the playoffs' attitude, like we saw in Atlanta towards the Braves.

Colorado has seen its attendance dip in large part because it had nowhere to go but down. When the team arrived it enjoyed a joint honeymoon & Cup win boost. Now the team has been there for a while, isn't a Cup contender and doesn't have the same star appeal it did with Roy, Forsberg, Foote and Sakic in his prime.

Chicago has terrible fan support because (1) Bill Wirtz alienated the fan base and (2)they've been so bad for so long. It's going to take a long time to undo that damage.


1) DMG: We would remind ya that the Wings had trouble selling out their playoff games last spring as well. Economics could be a slight factor, but that area has been in an economic slow down for several years now.
2) Also you'd have to think with the favourable currency exchange rate that a larger influx of Canadians from the other side of the tunnel would make up for this.
3) The Avalanche may no longer be an elite team, but they are still quite competitive If what you say is true, and it is probably right, what does it say about the stability of that market if the instant the team is no longer one of the top 2-3 teams that fans start to drift away?
4) That same issue may well be seen in Carolina and/or Tampa Bay if/when those teams descend to mediocrity or worse for an extended period.
5) In other words what you're seeing with your team's attendance problems can/could happen anywhere (outside of Canada, NY City, and possibly Philadelphia).

JP said...

To let ya know as a long time Hawk fans I vowed I would not go back to see another game unil that bastard wirtz kicked the bucket. I kept my wor and have already gone to 3 games this year. You can bet your boots I wasn't alone. Just you watch our attendance go sky high now that that prick is rotting in the ground!

Victor said...

Losing started to reduce even our loyal fans here in Columbus. We put up wh the losing for so long I fear some folks gave up even though we look better so far this year.
faux: Most fans follow their team and go more frequently when they win. No matter what sport your talking about thats the case.


1) JP: We would have figured there would be more of folks who felt like you do and that attendancein the Windy City would be far ahead of last year. Perhaps in the second half.
2) Victor: We understand the fickle nature of fans, however some teams are/have been more immune to the fluctuations of their teams' performance than others.
3) Some of the teams mentioned haven't had a big down turn in over a decade. What kind of support will they have if they lose/miss the playoffs for a couple of seasons?

Dominik said...

These are on-going concerns, but I do think there are more socioeconomic factors at play, particularly in Detroit. Michigan has arguably the worst economy in the U.S. right now, a situation that has been building for years.

But I think its symptomatic of where the NHL and pro sports are heading: People have too many entertainment options, and the price is now exorbitant. If you jack up prices and you toy with the product (e.g. losing or mismanaged team, or lockout), you risk losing them for good -- or until the business is a "contender" again.

A point about St. Louis, though: the team did not have "to significantly lower ticket prices to re-attract fans back." It had to be purchased by an owner and run by a management team that showed a visible plan that included fans in it.

It was actually a fascinating process to watch. The fans were previously run through the ringer by an "I married Wal-Mart and I love the NBA" owner who spent big but carelessly and then cut the feet out from the team when he didn't make money or win Cups (This was Mr. "I'm selling the team, and I'm offloading Pronger to make the team more attractive to buyers").

St. Louis fans reacted the way I bet most of us hope fans would react to mistreatment by poor ownership (Toronto, anyone?): they voted with their wallets. Now, after the new ownership has demonstrated earnest (and reversed its initial mistake of raising ticket prices on a bruised fanbase before making any on-ice moves), the fans are back.

The Blues will surely raise ticket prices back up next season, and as long as management is demonstrating progress, fans will probably still show up.

Matt said...

as a Colorado fan, the main thing keeping me from going to more games is the ticket price. it's over $200, maybe even $300 for me and my wife to go to a game and have decent seats!

meanwhile, the CHL expanded here and created the Colorado Eagles in Fort Collins (and now the Rocky Mountian Rage in Denver). For $32 (less, for the Rage) i can go to a game at the 10th row up on the blue line and watch a truly fun product. Sure it's not quite the NHL, but the Eagles field a very skilled, if undersized, group. Plus the Eagles players are very active in the community and try their absolute best for us fans every night -- I relate to them and root for them almost more easily than multi-millionare slacker 3rd liners like Tyler Arnason.

at any rate, don't underestimate the inroads minor league hockey made in all the markets you list. when it's 10-20% of the cost to go to a game for only a slightly less entertaining product, the decision is easy for me.


1) Dom: Good point about people having many more entertainment options available than in years past. Meaning that the NHL has to work doubly hard to retain its base of support.
2) MLB/NBA/NFL may have a slight decrease in TV ratings but are still makig tons of money compared to the NHL. Their game IS no better/more watchable than the NHL.
3) Matt: Your situation is not unique. Many fans got priced out of the ability to go to NHL games. Gary Bettman lied to all of us when before the lockout he professed one of the most inportant tasks with a new CBA was to make the games more affordable to the average fan. So far, that has not happened.
4) Minor league/college hockey can be very exciting. Its MUCH less costly, and many times you can sit quite close. Its a nice alternative.
5) We don't though give that as an excuse for an NHL team losing fan support. The Flyers have their AHL team play across the parking lot and BOTH are supported very well

Dominik said...

The "lockout is for affordable ticket prices" lie is, to me, the most offensive crime of Bettman's tenure.

That their post-lockout "revenue growth" appears to be built almost solely on higher ticket prices and the Canadian dollar exchange rate just adds to the insult.

For my own entertainment dollar, I've already left MLB's roids and NFL's thugs behind. As a diehard fan it's tough to imagine, but if the NHL's "growth" continues to be strictly greed-based rather than popularity-based, I could see dumping-- nah, I don't even want to think about that.

Matt said...

but Faux, Philly is a hockey-mad environment -- the supply of hockey games doesn't match demand. Colorado doesn't have nearly the history of generational fans and such -- many, if not most fans around here are fairly new to the sport dating to when the Avs moved here, myself included.

With the increase in hockey "supply" around here, the demand level has suddenly been reached. Combine that with a falling off in the Avalanche's play vs. minor league championships and NCAA championships, and I think that's the fall in attendance here. It's still over 90%, I don't think there's any huge danger here.

Of course, the situation is probably much different in, say, Detroit. I'm just providing a perspective on Colorado.

Antzmarching said...

BUTTman should take a lesson from Bud Selig - move in the fences and distribute steroids to all the players... That'll get your attendance up...

Contact the Media