Monday, November 7, 2011
Breaking Down NHL Attendance Woes
Amid the big stories in the early NHL season — both positive (Toronto Maple Leafs) and negative (Columbus Blue Jackets) — there have also been grumblings about low attendance numbers for some markets. Specifically, teams like Columbus and Dallas have struggled to eclipse the 10,000 attendance figure on various nights, leading to the usual charge about "too many teams" and "not a hockey market."
Such judgments are often applied without the proper context. Let's go back before the lockout, when the Chicago Blackhawks were still in the unfriendly iron grip of Bill Wirtz. The team stunk, popular players departed over money issues, and the team was generally disconnected with the local sports fans. If you tuned into any random Hawks game at the United Center, you saw a dismal half-empty building that barely made a peep. Yet, there was no talk of relocation, poor markets, or other such talk; instead, critics focused on ownership, management, and the on-ice product.
Similarly, the pre-lockout Washington Capitals weren't exactly going gangbusters at the then-MCI Center. The Caps had solid ownership, but were decidedly above-average on the ice — good enough to usually make the playoffs, but not good enough to do much else. The diehards loved their players like Peter Bondra and Dale Hunter, but there weren't enough of those to fill the building, even for playoff games.
Yet, both of those markets are seen as NHL strongholds. What turned them around? The 'Hawks essentially had a management change in the transition from the late Bill Wirtz to Rocky Wirtz — and the younger Wirtz made re-connecting with the fans just as important as the on-ice product. Having bright young star players helped, too. In Washington, the situation was a little less complex — install a once-in-a-generation star like Alexander Ovechkin, transition to a high-flying attack style, and surround him with young talent and suddenly you get a hockey hotbed, so much so that the Caps are now a priority for the DC sports fan.
The idea of "not a hockey market" is an oversimplified black-and-white explanation. In just about every sports team's case, a winning team with a few star players will build a foundation for a fanbase. When you add smart management, strong community outreach, and solid ownership to the mix, you have the blueprint for success over the long haul. There are exceptions to every rule, but non-traditional markets have thrived this way and become NHL strongholds. Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has traditionally done well in attendance except for the short period when an out-of-their-mind ownership group nearly destroyed the fanbase. Once the team stabilized with a new owner and a better on-ice product, the fans returned.
Are low attendance numbers a concern? Of course. In a gate-driven league, ticket sales are a priority. But there's a bigger picture at play here. The Dallas Stars have been undergoing an ownership change during the post-Mike Modano era, as well as losing the team's best player to free agency (Brad Richards). The Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs once in franchise history, and despite being in an area with a solid college hockey background, have pretty much never accomplished anything to reward fans.
By making judgments over a snapshot of attendance, critics are losing site of the bigger picture. Remember, it's far easier to lose a fanbase than it is to get one. There's a mix of performance, community perception, marketing, player visibility, and other factors at play here. Even during Ovechkin's rookie year, when buzz was growing around his talent, the Caps didn't really see their attendance trend upward until the following season. Factor in a tough economy and the general NHL trend of lower attendance across the board in October/November, and you can see that attendance problems aren't simple one-solution issues — nor are they a true reflection on how "good" or "bad" a hockey market is.