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April 27, 2006

The NHL's Attendance Myth
Gary Bettman is crowing about the NHL's attendance increase. TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski explains why that elation may be short-lived. 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Kevin Morgan was the Vice President of Sales for the Washington Capitals in 2002 when I interviewed him for a magazine article called "How Hockey Can Take Over Your Town."

His arrival in D.C. came at a time when the Caps were literally giving away thousands of tickets to home games, just to get fans through the arena doors and on line for the concession stands. 

My, how times haven't changed...

Of course, he's not alone — the same rubes who think non-hockey fans will flock to the arena because they might see a skills competition end an overtime game are probably thinking that the elimination of the red line accounted for at least 2% of that record gate increase.

Like I said: rubes, the lot of them. 

This isn't a screed against the quality of the "new" NHL, because the game is more entertaining than it was before the lockout. But let's not kid ourselves: the on-ice product is wonderful, but its effect on the attendance increase is completely unsupported. 

First of all, these fans that came to the arena to watch tag-up off-sides in person evidently don't also own a television; or else their insatiable lust for fire-wagon hockey would have elevated either OLN's or NBC's ratings above that of a "Golden Girls" rerun on the Woman's network. 

We could chalk this up to the continued poor translation of hockey on TV, or to the loss of ESPN. But the fact remains that, for all of the positive buzz, viewers didn't make time for the NHL — nationally or locally.

So if it wasn't the new on-ice product that was the catalyst for this attendance surge, what was it?

How about across-the-board ticket price deductions, along with several one-shot anomalies that juiced the numbers in several previously struggling small markets:

  * The Pittsburgh Penguins had a stellar year at the gate, increasing attendance by 33.1%. The average gate was 15,804, way up from 11,877 in the last pre-lockout season. 

AP columnist Jim Litke covered the surge in a recent valentine to Gary Bettman's genius: 

"The NHL plays its games in buildings often filled to capacity. That much hasn't changed, despite dire predictions that being the first pro league to cancel an entire season would drive fans away the way baseball's strike a dozen seasons ago had. In Pittsburgh, for example where the Penguins dropped their first nine games, and a slapped-together roster of stars stumbled to their fourth straight losing season in an outdated arena, the number was 94-percent."

I guess Sidney Crosby's impact didn't fit into Jim's rags-to-riches tale... 

Along with the incredible attraction of Sid the Kid, the Penguins had price cuts that ranged from 6% to 45% for full season tickets in the general seating area of the arena. But ignore all of that — it's the rules changes, right Gary? 

  * The NHL got lucky that four teams from small markets all had success carry over, or begin in, the 2005-06 season. The previous season's Cup finalists both saw dramatic boosts in attendance, as Calgary increased its gate by 16.4% and Tampa Bay was up 15.5%. Buffalo's long wait for a winning team resulted in a 10.4% increase — in fact, 11 of the team's 16 sellouts came after Jan. 1, when the Sabres were 26-11-2. 

Then there was Carolina, a combination of regular season success and an amazing discount at the ticket window: a 16.9% across-the-board drop, as average ticket prices went from $31.77 to $26.15. The result was a nearly 30% increase in attendance for a team that finished second in the East. But ignore all of that — it's the rules changes, right Gary?

  * Attendance increases in Anaheim (0.79%) could be attributed to a 2-for-1 scheme that allowed a family of four to buy four seats (buy two, get two) for a total of $47 a game. The Florida Panthers saw attendance jump 0.34%, but the Panthers lowered season ticket prices in six of their 10 pricing categories. San Jose moved up 6.3%, but tickets dropped an average of 10%. Nashville was one of the biggest gainers (9.9%) at the gate, and the Predators were one of the league's most prolific ticket-price slashers before the season. Season tickets were discounted as much as 51%, and for the first time offered $10 seats as season tickets. The Predators also used variable pricing to drop tickets down for weekday night games. They even slashed the price of a hot dog down to $1 on Thursdays, and offered free popcorn on Tuesdays. But ignore all of that — it's the rules changes, right Gary?

  * Then there were the New Jersey Devils, who didn't slash ticket prices and continued to try and keep their players as the best-kept secrets in the Garden State (well, besides where Jimmy Hoffa is these days). The team's average ticket price was $54.67, second-highest in hockey. Without significant promotion and ticket cutting, the Devils' gate dropped 5.5%; it was the third-highest drop in the league behind Washington and St. Louis. But, yeah, it must have been the rules changes that scared off all the trap-happy Devils fans. 

Which brings us back to Washington. Despite having the most exciting player in the entire league on the ice every night, the Caps saw a 5.5% decrease in attendance. Why? Because Ovechkin's exploits aside, management came out before the season, cried poverty and basically said this team wasn't going to contend this year. The fans aren't deaf, and they sure as hell aren't dumb — when the Caps are ready to win, they'll be ready to watch them. 

Remember that saying from way back at the start of this thesis paper: "You basically have to build value around the ticket." 

Fans value winning. Fans value effort. But most of all, fans value... well, value. Moms and Dads like a bargain when it comes to family entertainment, and they could care less about the quality of the product — that's why those crappy "Spy Kids" movies made so much damn money. The bottom line is that the NHL had priced families out of the arena for several years, and the lockout forced teams to make a night out at the rink affordable again. The fans responded to these discounts in record numbers. I think they'll be back again next season — if the price is right. 

So in this age of "cost certainty," Mr. Bettman, why not freeze ticket prices across the board for next season? 

Teams like the Hurricanes are already planning on tossing aside that fan goodwill in favor of a quick buck — The News and Observer (NC) reported that Carolina season tickets will cost between 5-percent and 17-percent more next season. 

"We've kept prices static for four years and we felt like we have a little bit of momentum that we can sustain and position ourselves a little better financially," said Kyle Prairie, the team's director of ticket sales.

Sure, Kyle — until the team's back in the cellar, the tickets are all overpriced, and the arena has more empties than the parking lot of Lowe's Motor Speedway on the morning of a race.

Maybe by then, there'll be a whole new slate of rules changes to "save" the NHL…right, Gary?

(Ed. Note: Big ups to 
and Team Marketing Report for much of the info in this piece.)


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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