When the Candian Press ran a story with the headline stating that NHL teams were trying to get fans to come to games instead of watching it on television, I couldn’t help but wonder if that were true or not. Why would the NHL in the last year of its national broadcast rights deal with NBC try and drive value away from what should be a record-setting deal for them?
The underlying questions are: How has attendance faired in the NHL over the years? What’s the trend? Is there a reason for concern? Of course, you will always see dips in certain franchises for various reasons, but there might be more to it than that. Is the future bright or not?
For the purpose of this analysis, I focused solely on average attendance per year for the regular season from a total league viewpoint. Over the seasons, the number of games has changed due to the expansion into new markets, such as Las Vegas two seasons ago.
NHL Record a Tad Deceiving
This past season, the NHL total regular-season attendance broke a league record, attracting 22,186,851 fans to games across the league. From a high level, you could call that a success. It’s a modest 0.6% growth or 10 additional fans per game on average compared to the previous season. The 2018-19 season averaged 17,456 fans. However, looking from another angle, the last couple of seasons haven’t been kind to the NHL’s attendance figures.
Since the league posted a season-high average attendance of 17,690 in 2013-14, it’s been a slow slide downhill. Outside of last season, the league’s average attendance declined every season since its record-high. Even with a slight uptick from 2017-18, the 2018-19 total was still minus-1.32% to 2013-14.
NHL Attendance Trend Nothing New
Declining average attendance numbers have become the norm in sports. Fans have the option of paying for tickets, food, drinks, parking, and travel, or just watching the game on the couch on their crystal clear smart TVs. Here’s how the NHL’s minus-1.32% decline from 2013-14 to 2018-19 compares to the other major sports leagues:
- Major League Baseball (MLB): minus-5.88%
- National Basketball Association (NBA): plus-2.59%
- National Football League (NFL): minus-1.98%
- Major League Soccer (MLS): plus-17.56%
Out of the five major sports leagues in the United States, three of the five, including the NHL, have posted declines in average attendance between 2013-14 to 2018-19. Two of the leagues posted growth, the NBA and MLS. If you’re wondering why the MLS percent change jumps off the charts, it’s due to their success in expansion. Atlanta United has been able to consistently average 50,000 in attendance since its debut in 2017.
NHL Future Still Bright
The NHL is pretty much on par with the NFL, which isn’t a horrible thing, but when it comes to declining attendance numbers it might be. Sports are now competing with a society that has access to anything they desire from the comfort of their own homes. It is for this reason that the NHL should continue its investment into the digital space with podcasts, digital video content, and with its next broadcast rights round, the powers that be should entertain a dual contract situation that would allow both traditional broadcast partners (NBC, ESPN, FOX, etc) and an online-based partner (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, etc.).
The league as a whole should still try to do everything in their power to sell out venues and try and buck the trend. Having the New York Islanders playing more games at the Coliseum than the Barclays Center this season will help. The building of Belmont Park will help as well to get the Islanders franchise back on track. In addition, there is a rumored new arena in Calgary and a new arena going up in Seattle for the expansion franchise in the coming years. Several existing arenas have undergone transformations in the past year as well.
- TD Garden (Boston Bruins) replaced its seating and designed a retail center adjacent to the arena.
- Bridgestone Arena (Nashville Predators) underwent an $8 million offseason renovation.
- Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia Flyers) added a sportsbook.
- Enterprise Center (St. Louis Blues) has started Phase 3 of its renovation project.
NHL Will Always Be Fighting for Eyeballs
It’s for all those previously mentioned developments that the NHL should be able to continue their recent attendance success and grow their broadcast audience as well. But the challenges that face them now are not going away. Perhaps allowing fighting to come back or to increase might help?
The game is in a good place now, but I think a little more old-time grit would do the fans and sport some good. If a guy gets rocked with a clean check nowadays a lot of players act like someone stole their dog. A little change to this seemingly league-wide attitude couldn’t hurt, and it would probably boost attendance without putting the players in too much danger.
The streaming of video content will only get bigger and bigger with companies like Apple and Disney both going full force into space. Streaming and the dependence the average person has of their digital devices will not go away anytime soon. The NHL will have to continue its fight for eyeballs for the foreseeable future. But then again, the league has been doing that since it was founded.