The NHL announced the 2019 All-Star Game will be held in San Jose. I expect the All-Star Game and related weekend events will be fun. It’ll look great both in the arena and on television. Any event with Brent Burns front and center is promising.
For the hosting team, the San Jose Sharks, the question is this: what can this game do for the San Jose Sharks?
Sharks attendance is good, but not great. The best thing an All-Star Game can accomplish for the Sharks is a long-term uptick in ticket sales for the team, but I don’t see this happening. The game may have a short-term impact, but nothing more than that.
Events and Ticket Sales
There are numerous attendance challenges facing the Sharks, but perhaps the biggest challenge is simply this: the Sharks are a minor sports story in an entertainment rich, sports-rich region. An event will draw people and an All-Star Game is an event. But the Sharks have hosted splashy events before and the long-term carryover was minimal.
One recent splashy event the Sharks hosted was the Stadium Series Game in February, 2015 at Levi’s Stadium in nearby Santa Clara. The game sold out, but if there was carryover from the event to increased support of the team, it wasn’t much.
The following season, the Sharks had their lowest attendance figures in over a decade. At the end of that season, with the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final (another splashy event given the Cup was in the house), tickets for Game 6 in San Jose could be had on re-seller sites for close to face value the day before the game.
The Sharks have a good core fan base, but the casual fan base isn’t creating overwhelming ticket demand.
The Sharks Competitive Challenges
The principle challenge for San Jose is to solidify robust attendance in a very competitive entertainment and media market. There are an enormous number of entertainment options in the region and major professional sports is a subset.
With one exception, all the major sports teams in the area are seeing a strong uptick in optimism. The San Francisco Giants brought in major talent upgrades. The Golden State Warriors continue to be among the best and most exciting teams in all of sports (their business isn’t bad, either). The Oakland Raiders hired a new head coach with a big persona and positive history. And the San Francisco 49ers had a strong finish to their season, winning five consecutive games under the direction of a new quarterback.
For the Sharks, gaining share is going to be tougher, not easier.
Battling the Local Media
For the Sharks, getting airtime is challenging. Perhaps the most prominent local sports television show, The Happy Hour, illustrates the point.
Recently on the show, the hosts had a pair of 10-minute segments (on separate days) covering the injury to Joe Thornton. During one of the segments, they noted it had been a long time since they had talked about hockey. It’s true. It’s hard to find any reference to Sharks stories on their site. According to the show’s podcast scroll, the last Sharks coverage came in the preseason back on October 4.
The show where they talked about Thornton came in late January. In January, only two local, major sports team are playing: the Sharks and Warriors. January is a month the Sharks should get a lot of media attention.
The Happy Hour gets five hours of television time per week (not counting reruns). Most weeks, the Sharks get zero coverage.
You’d think they’d get airtime if for no other reason than the show is run by the same network which also televises the Sharks – one hand helping the other. Nope, even that’s not happening. Even when the Sharks are the second most prominent professional team playing in the area, it’s mostly crickets when it comes to sports media coverage.
The All-Star Game’s Impact
If the game does make a difference for the men in teal, it’ll happen in less obvious ways. For example, if the Sharks are recruiting John Tavares this offseason, hosting the next All-Star Game is going to help. Playing in an All-Star Game in your team’s home venue is pretty sweet. Just ask Owen Nolan. Hosting an All-Star Game won’t be the basis for Tavares’ decision. But it might be a bit helpful, nothing more. One gets the sense this description also fits the All-Star Game for the Sharks. It’ll be a bit helpful, but nothing more.
The All-Star Game will solve few, if any, of the Sharks’ attendance challenges. It is unfortunate, but the demand for the product is simply not high enough in an area which features a ton of competition for entertainment.
Attendance is a bigger issue for the Sharks than most other local teams, but no team can coast on reputation, either. Disappointing teams, including the 49ers and Giants, have seen the number of fans in the seats drop substantially in their recent down seasons. One reason for optimism, the Sharks will have reduced competition, with the Raiders moving to Las Vegas and the Oakland Athletics moving someday, somewhere.
For the Sharks, the key is cementing a long-term connection with the fans. The organization has done a lot of good things, on and off the ice. The on-ice product has been consistently good. But there is clearly more work to do with the local fan base. An outdoor game didn’t fix the core attendance challenges in 2015. Nor did a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. The All-Star Game won’t fix it either.
The Sharks hosted the All-Star Game once before. A labor dispute, in the form of a lockout, cancelled the scheduled game in 1995. Delayed by two seasons, the game took place in 1997 and for local fans, it was worth the wait. The highlight, and one of the franchise’s most famous moments, was Owen Nolan’s called shot against Dominik Hasek, the final goal in his All-Star Game hat trick.