Trouble spots: A look at National Hockey League attendance since the lockout

Nationwide Arena (Dave Gainer/THW)

The 2004-05 National Hockey League lockout had a few significant effects. While the work stoppage had the positive effect of providing new-found parity between all 30 NHL teams on the ice, it could not do the same thing off of it. Attendance in some markets has continued to be wildly erratic. Presented here are three comparative measurements attempting to find the NHL’s attendance trouble spots.

Games With Fewer Than 10,000 Fans

Since the lockout, there have been 92 games played with fewer than 10,000 fans in attendance. The breakdown is as follows: 31 on Long Island, 24 in Phoenix, 11 in St. Louis, six in Columbus, five each in New Jersey and Chicago, four in Atlanta, three in Dallas and one each in Stockholm, Carolina and Buffalo.

Long Island and Phoenix are addressed in detail later on. St. Louis’ empty-arena games were concentrated in the disastrous 2006/07 season, with the Blues’ dead-last finish from the prior season resulting in a 12,150 average attendance. Chicago’s first three post-lockout seasons saw the team gradually rebuild, so the low numbers were a product of a sub-par team. Similarly, Carolina and Buffalo’s entries were during the worst attendance years they had during the post-lockout period (and Buffalo’s “home” game was played in Rochester‘s small BlueCross Arena – thanks to Jay in the comments for the heads up). Stockholm was simply a small venue during the NHL’s Premiere series in Europe.

New Jersey attendance generally suffers due to fan reliance on transit and as a result, most of their really low attendance games are a result of nasty weather gumming up the works. Dallas’ attendance has suffered in recent years, as has the team’s on-ice performance, but the three sub-10,000 fan games occurred early in the 2011-12 season during the Texas Rangers’ march to the World Series.

Long Island, Phoenix, Columbus and Atlanta are a different story.

Lowest Average Attendance

Generally speaking, small crowds are a product of a weak market. The bottom five teams in attendance since the lockout are the New York Islanders (12,784), Phoenix (14,074), Atlanta (14,887), New Jersey (15,012) and Nashville (15,121).

During this period, the Islanders made the playoffs just once and were 20 points out of the playoffs twice. Phoenix has made the playoffs over the past two seasons, but the only effect that has had was to even out the attendance free-fall (stabilizing things at roughly 12,000 fans). Atlanta missed the playoffs all but one year, and that year was the Thrashers’ best for attendance. The Devils made the playoffs every season except for 2010-11, but their attendance consistently was stuck at the 15,000 mark. Similarly, Nashville was remarkably consistent during the sample period – making the playoffs all but one season and having consistent 15,000 attendance.

Over 42,000 fans packed Calgary's McMahon Stadium in frigid conditions for the 2011 Heritage Classic (Ray Wong/flickr)

Not surprisingly, several venues saw no real change in attendance, despite their teams having disappointing numbers. Again, not surprisingly, many of those venues are in Canada or “traditional” hockey markets: Montreal, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver, Minnesota and New York. Some of the less-traditional markets have shown remarkable consistency: San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Tampa Bay and Florida have all been strong, even when the teams were less than stellar.

Lowest Average Utilized Capacity

While attendance figures can be quite frightening, the recent addition of Winnipeg’s MTS Centre to the NHL has brought up a very good point: Attendance numbers don’t really matter as long as the arena is full.

Again, there are a handful of usual suspects in the lower ranges: Long Island (79%), Atlanta (81%), Phoenix (82%) and New Jersey (83%). Columbus (85%) is also a weak sister.

On the flip side, there are eight venues that have been at (or above) 100% capacity throughout the last seven seasons. None of the names are really all that surprising:  Montreal, Philadelphia, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, New York and Edmonton. The next group (running at 98-99%) includes Detroit, Ottawa, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and San Jose.

Considering this, it isn’t that shocking that of the seven NHL games held in outdoor stadiums, five have been held in markets that consistently sold out games (regardless of on-ice performance) while the other two were in resurgent markets with strong teams (Boston and Chicago).

Conclusions

Generally speaking, if your team is strong, you will sell out games. If your team is lousy, you will still sell out games if your team is in Canada or Detroit, Pennsylvania, Manhattan, Buffalo, California or Minnesota.

On the other hand, the Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg solved one of the NHL’s attendance problem spots, but not the worst one. Phoenix and Long Island are easily just as bad for attendance as Atlanta used to be, and there is seemingly no end in sight. Worse, despite being a pretty competitive young team, Columbus’ attendance figures are gradually eroding.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. The strongest markets in the AHL or  ECHL are already well-served by existing NHL teams, so there aren’t any venues that scream for an NHL club. For now, the only way for Phoenix and the Islanders to become viable franchises again may be to radically improve the on-ice product.