The 2009-10 Colorado Avalanche continue to be an enigma. On the morning of November 13th, they woke up to find themselves 2nd in the NHL overall standings, trailing only San Jose. For a team some picked to finish 32nd in a 30 team league, their play has been nothing short of amazing.
What is not amazing is the attendance, or lack thereof, at Avalanche home games. As of 11/13. Colorado is 25th in average attendance. Their stated average of 14,504 is slightly over 80% of capacity in Denver’s Pepsi Center.
Attendance problems are not unusual in the NHL, especially in “sunbelt cities” such as Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa and Phoenix. But Colorado has been the rare exception of great attendance in “non-traditional” hockey cities. The Avs set an NHL record of 487 consecutive sellouts from November 1995 through October of 2006.
The current situation has tongues wagging from the cheap seats at the Pepsi Center to bloggers league wide to the executive offices of team owner Kroenke Sports Enterprises. And for the first time since Socks the Cat was in the White House, the Avs have to work to sell tickets.
Professional hockey has often been a tough sell in the Mile High City. The area’s 1st NHL team, the Colorado Rockies of 1976-82, averaged around 8,000 during their stay. But much of that was due to bad management and promotion, as the Rockies were one of the worst run organizations in the history of hockey.
Two minor league teams followed the Rockies, and each played two years before folding. Denver went without pro hockey from 1989 to 1994.
Professional hockey returned with a bang in the fall of 1994 when the Denver Grizzlies of the International Hockey League took to the ice. Well run and well marketed, the “Griz” took the IHL by storm, winning the Turner Cup Championship and averaging over 11,000 per game. With the onset of the Avs in Denver the Grizzlies moved to Salt Lake City for the 1995-96 season.
So the table was set for the return of the NHL. Ascent Sports, owners of the NBA Denver Nuggets, had a ready-made list of contacts/season ticket holders when they moved the Quebec Nordiques to Denver in the summer of 1995. And the team was successful from the start, both on the ice and at the gate. Their 487 game sellout streak began on November 11th, 1995 and ran for 11 years.
The Avs success at the box office was greatly aided by the team’s success on the ice. 8 consecutive division championships, two Presidents Trophies and 2 Stanley Cups kept the seats filled.
But even the Golden Goose will eventually run dry. The lockout of 2004-05 caused hard feelings with many of the Avs faithful. Fans had to pay for their season tickets in the summer of 2004, then allow the team to keep their money until play resumed in the fall of 2005. The Avs did pay interest to the ticket holders, but bad feelings remained.
Another cause of dismay was the loss of many of the fans favorite players. The exodus began with Ray Bourque, who retired after the 2001 Stanley Cup victory.
Patrick Roy retired. Peter Forsberg left in a petty contract dispute, as did Adam Foote. The players that fans identified with were gone and no one was stepping up to take their place.
The worsening economy did the organization no favors. And when the 2008-09 season saw the team miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and finish last in the Western Conference, it seemed that the team had hit bottom.
The main cause for the low attendance is a huge drop in season ticket sales. It was reported that the Avalanche capped season ticket sales at 14,500 when they moved to the Pepsi Center. It is rumored that this year’s season ticket base is around half that.
The Avs are working hard to increase ticket sales. They introduced a new mascot. They initiated the Avalanche Alumni Association and are having 10 special (promotional) nights to honor former players. They have numerous Family Night and Guys Night Out promotions. And renewing season ticket holders were able to purchase additional season tickets in the lower bowl, regularly $94 per game, for $24 per game.
While there are many theories on how the Avs can put more people in the seats, the bottom line is tied to the team’s record. Denver is not a hockey town. Denver is a winners town.The only team in Denver that is a guaranteed sellout is the NFL Broncos. And there is speculation as to whether that team’s 40 YEAR sellout streak would continue if they had several consecutive bad seasons on the field.
The attendance for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets is directly tied to their record, and has been since the team began play in the mid 60’s. The team has had many star players over the years, including several who are now in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but it was the team’s won-loss record that determined how many people showed up night after night.
Box office success for the Avs will be driven by success on the ice. The current Avalanche team is an exciting, hard-working, hustling team with several young players who are destined for NHL stardom, yet the team is near the bottom of the league in attendance. If the Avs can keep anywhere near this pace and stay at the top of the their division/conference, the fans should gradually return.
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