NHL's Attendance Woes

Attendance across much of the NHL appears to be trending downward this season which may create new trouble spots for the NHL and with the Canadian dollar unlikely to rise as significantly this year as the previous couple years, we could, for the first time, see the salary cap fall.

Last year there were 19 games with fewer than 10,000 fans, 13 of them in Phoenix and one of them being a snow storm related issue in New Jersey. So outside of Phoenix there were only 5 games where fewer than 10,000 fans showed up. This included one game in Atlanta, one game in Carolina, and three New York Islander home games. Not including the San Jose-Columbus game played overseas there have already been six NHL games with fewer than 10,000 fans, two in Columbus, two in Atlanta and two in Phoenix.

The table below shows each teams average attendance in their games following their home openers (since most teams sell out their home openers, games played in Europe not included) along with their 2009-10 Attendance.

Team #Games Attendance 2009-10 Att. Diff %Diff
Carolina 0 0 15240
Phoenix 2 7448 11989 -4542 -37.9%
Atlanta 2 8979 13607 -4628 -34.0%
Columbus 4 10360 15416 -5056 -32.8%
NY Islanders 2 10938 12735 -1798 -14.1%
Dallas 4 12254 17215 -4961 -28.8%
New Jersey 4 13096 15535 -2439 -15.7%
Florida 2 13326 15146 -1821 -12.0%
Anaheim 2 13349 15168 -1820 -12.0%
Colorado 2 14141 13947 194 1.4%
Tampa Bay 4 14573 15497 -925 -6.0%
Nashville 5 15910 14979 931 6.2%
Edmonton 3 16839 16839 0 0.0%
Minnesota 4 17147 18415 -1268 -6.9%
Ottawa 4 17388 18269 -881 -4.8%
San Jose 2 17562 17558 4 0.0%
Boston 2 17565 17388 177 1.0%
NY Rangers 3 17937 18076 -139 -0.8%
Los Angeles 2 17944 17313 631 3.6%
Buffalo 4 17965 18529 -564 -3.0%
Pittsburgh 4 18129 17078 1051 6.2%
Washington 4 18398 18277 121 0.7%
Vancouver 4 18860 18810 50 0.3%
Detroit 4 18904 19546 -642 -3.3%
St. Louis 3 19150 18883 267 1.4%
Toronto 4 19198 19260 -62 -0.3%
Calgary 5 19289 19289 0 0.0%
Philadelphia 5 19406 19535 -129 -0.7%
Chicago 5 20945 21356 -411 -1.9%
Montreal 4 21273 21273 0 0.0%

As you can see there are a handful of teams that have experienced significant (and using the word ‘significant’ might be downplaying it) drops from last years attendance levels. Phoenix, Atlanta, Columbus and Dallas have all dropped at minimum 4500 fans (yikes, that’s bad) from last years average attendance levels while the Islanders, Devils, Florida and Anaheim have dropped 1800 or more fans. Now it is somewhat unfair to compare early season attendance with season long attendance since many teams, particularly those in southern US locations, get better attendance later in the season after the NFL and college football seasons end. For the teams with the biggest drops I compared this seasons post-home opener attendance with last years post-home opener attendance for the same number of games (i.e. Phoenix has played 2 games since their home opener this year so I considered the average attendance from their first 2 post home opener attendance from one year ago).

Team #Games 2010-11 Att. 2009-10 Att. Diff %Drop
Phoenix 2 7448 8031 -584 -7.3%
Atlanta 2 8979 14068 -5089 -36.2%
Columbus 4 10360 15213 -4853 -31.9%
NY Islanders 2 10938 11716 -779 -6.6%
Dallas 4 12254 16672 -4418 -26.5%
New Jersey 4 13096 15253 -2157 -14.1%
Florida 2 13326 14082 -757 -5.4%
Anaheim 2 13349 15007 -1659 -11.1%

That only makes things look marginally better. Despite Phoenix only selling an average of 8031 tickets for their first 2 post home opener games last year they still saw a 7.3% drop in attendance. That is not a very good sign for the future of the Coyotes in Phoenix. But things aren’t looking very good in Atlanta or with the Islanders but the potential new trouble markets are Columbus and Dallas.

In Atlanta attendance has dropped a whopping 36% despite a 10.1% drop in ticket prices and that is a pretty bad combination for a franchise that was already considered in trouble. Those attendance numbers don’t look good for the Islanders but their did increase their average ticket price nearly 20% so their net revenue might be flat or even up a little. But the Islanders desperately need a new arena or their future on Long Island will forever be in doubt.

For the Blue Jackets, losing may finally be catching up to them. Their ticket prices have remained unchanged from one year ago but they have seen their attendance drop significantly. Their best home attendance after their home opener has been 11,727, which is 664 fans fewer than their worst attandance from last year. The Blue Jackets are a money losing organization and this year their losses could sky rocket as in addition to the lost ticket sales revenue they could lose a portion of their revenue sharing money. If the fans have finally soured on the Blue Jackets losing ways this could pose troubling issues for the franchise going forward.

The Dallas Stars are an interesting case. They are a big market who has been relatively successful on and off the ice in the past but their attendance drop has to have some at least a little concerned. Their drop in attendance is likely partly due to the uncertainty with the ownership of the team but I am sure having long time players Mike Modano and Marty Turco leave via free agency isn’t helping things either. Making matters worse for the Stars is they have dropped their ticket prices 2.5% this season and are now have the lowest average ticket price in the NHL by a sizeable margin. I won’t go so far as to say the Dallas Stars are a team in trouble but if they don’t get their ownership issues resolved soon and they are forced to trade a key player or two such as Brad Richards, it could be a troubling sign for the franchise going forward. Will the fans support a losing team?

There aren’t really a lot of bright spots in the NHL as far as attendance goes this season but one might be the Nashville Predators who are up over last years attendance but did so while increasing their average ticket price by 5.5%. They have been playing quality hockey on the ice too so while they are far from a strong NHL franchise financially they have moved past some of their financial woes of the past and are not one of the main problem franchises in the NHL anymore. The same can be said for Pittsburgh who has seen attendance and average ticket price rise in their new arena. Pittsburgh is now back as one of the strong franchises in the NHL. Drafting Sidney Crosby and winning a Stanley Cup certainly helped.

(Average ticket price data from Team Marketing Report)

This article has 7 Comments

  1. Before we blame the South for bad hockey climates again, please note that the Carolina game you speak of with less that 10,000 fans was also due to snow, as you stated was the case in the Northeast for New Jersey…

  2. I’m sorry, but this analysis is completely idiotic. The highest number of post-opener home games compared was five, which is an incredibly small sample and the timeframe is also heavily unreliable. In every sport other than the NFL, most teams have lower attendance early in the season than they do once it progresses, even the bad teams. By picking a sample of a max of five games in the lowest point of attendance demand you definitely have found a nice bit of evidence to back your theory. How about you write another article at the end of the season showing how unreliable the incredibly small sample you chose was in comparison to the entire season. Even at the 1/4 mark of the season, the attendance numbers for most of the teams you highlighted is better than that sample you chose. I really hope they don’t pay you for such poor ‘journalism.’

  3. My my your sensitive. It actually isn’t ‘idiotic’. When I wrote this, that is all the data I had to go with. I didn’t choose the sample, the date I wrote the article did. I also compared first x home games this year to first x home games last year so the comparables are similar. Yes, the sample size is small but it was presented to show some red flag areas and some teams to watch in the future, not as a commentary on the whole season. If you want more recent attendance numbers go to http://www.mynhltraderumors.com/2010/12/03/nhl-attendance-for-each-team-after-10-home-games/ where they have attendance through 10 games for each team. Blue Jackets attendance is down 3700, Stars down 3800, Thrashers down 2000, Islanders down 1700, Devils down 1000.

  4. Actually up to this date compared to this time last season, attendance in the NHL is up. You cannot compare full season to only a couple of games this season. You have to compare where it is right now to the data from this part of the season from last year. That is a major fault in your analysis here.

    18 teams are playing to a capacity of 95% or better. At this time last year only 14 teams were at that level.

    Up to this date, the NHL is playing to an avrage capacity of 91% across the league. The NBA so far this season is only playing to an average capacity of 87%. Why is that not in the article as that is a bright spot.

    Last week it was announced that the salary cap will rise $2-3m next season and maybe even more but that is the base minimum.

    It is well known that in every sport aside from the NFL, that the attendance goes up as the season progresses. So that is why using last years full season data does not work for a full scale analysis.

    It would probably be smart to take this article especially if you’re truly a hockey fan since it is flawed and will give people the wrong impression of where hockey and the NHL are at right now. The NHL is riding an all time high in popularity and it continues to gain fans every day.

    1. Actually, I only compare the first few games of this season to the first few games of last season (not the full season as you imply). As for attendance being up overall, maybe, but that is actually worse news for the NHL because it just makes the weak franchises relatively weaker and despite what Gary Bettman might tell you, there are franchises in trouble. The Blue Jackets, Stars, Thrashers, and others have seen their attendance fall, and fall significantly in some cases. The salary cap may go up, but for those weak teams that have had attendance fall the cap rising just puts more pressure on them financially. And for some teams they have fallen below the threshold for getting a full revenue share and that would compound the issue.

      With the salary cap going up, clearly revenue isn’t an issue for the NHL but revenue has never been an issue anyway, even before the lockout. The issue has always been disparity of revenue from the big revenue teams and the small revenue teams and even under the new CBA that problem hasn’t gone away and as a result several teams suffer financially and those teams, generally speaking, aren’t seeing attendance increase.

  5. Actually you used the full season attendance numbers. How do I know this?

    Well to start the numbers you have posted under 09-10 attendance match exactly with the full season attendance numbers. And the second reason is because I have the attendance numbers for each game of last season and the numbers don’t add up.

    The fact remains that the analysis is flawed due. You would have to use the numbers from the comparable time frame which you do not.

    Yes there are trouble spots, mainly in Atlanta and Phoenix.

    But overall attendance is up in the NHL if you compare this season to the comparable time frame from last season. It is a fact that in all sports aside from the NFL that the attendance goes up as the year progresses.

    I need to know all this information for work. So I’m not your average reader.

    But this doesn’t really matter considering the fact that not many people read this site anyway. But maybe next time you shouldn’t lie.

    1. Look at my second table where I highlight the teams with significant attendance drop. That table compares the same games this year to last year, not the whole year. The conclusions I draw from that table still stand today. In addition to Atlanta and Phoenix:

      In Columbus, attendance is down significantly. Nine of their 15 home games have had 12,000 or fewer fans. That didn’t happen once all of last season.

      In Dallas, attendance is down significantly. Their lowest attended game last year was 15,571 on March 2. So far this year only 4 of their 16 home dates have surpassed that.

      Dallas probably isn’t a concern if they can get their ownership settled. Columbus could develop into a problem.

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