Fan Attendance: Does Winning Actually Bring in the Crowds?

“If you build it, they will come” –Someone who clearly wants an ice hockey team in the desert

The existential struggle of understanding why we, as a society, flock to arenas and cheer on our favorite gladiator team is a never ending battle. Many of us have our special reason why our team is, in fact, our team. “My dad loved them and made us watch every night” or “they’re the hometown guys!” are famous ones. But just being a fan isn’t the goal for the team owners out there, they need you to fill the stands. Curious patterns emerge when you look at fan attendance in sports. Why would you look at fan attendance numbers, you ask? Well… You wouldn’t, so I guess that’s why I’m here.

Winning Isn’t Everything

Here’s the raw data so far for average attendance per home game in the 2015-16 season. I’ve added their point totals as well, but we’ll get to that later.

Avg Pct Points
Chicago 21781 110.5 79
Montreal 21288 100.1 58
Detroit 20027 100 67
Toronto 19298 102.5 49
Boston 19278 113.7 68
Philadelphia 19170 98.1 60
Calgary 19148 99.3 53
Tampa Bay 19092 100 64
Minnesota 19052 106.1 58
Pittsburgh 18542 100.8 64
Washington 18509 100 86
Buffalo 18458 96.8 53
Vancouver 18422 97.4 56
Dallas 18321 98.9 80
Los Angeles 18256 100.1 69
St. Louis 18205 95.1 75
NY Rangers 18006 100 70
Ottawa 17855 93.2 58
Nashville 16910 98.8 62
Edmonton 16839 100 50
San Jose 16830 95.8 65
Anaheim 16289 94.8 66
Colorado 16061 89.2 62
Winnipeg 15294 101.9 53
Florida 14850 87.2 72
New Jersey 14822 84.1 65
Columbus 13687 75.4 53
NY Islanders 13345 84.4 66
Arizona 13209 77.1 58
Carolina 11841 63.4 62

Not surprisingly, the top 5 are all Original 6 franchises. Storied clubs with numerous trophies and accolades. On the bottom are teams that don’t quite have the same history and are in some curious locales for ice hockey. There’s the Coyotes who insist on playing hockey in 80 degree weather in Arizona. The Hurricanes have struggled to capture the imagination of the South (where football is King). And let’s face it, the Isles and Devils are going to struggle to take fans from the Rangers in the New York area.

(Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)
(Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

But it’s that final column that draws my attention. Points. At this point in the season, with just over a quarter of the season to go, teams are gearing up for their playoff runs. Fans should be too, right? Well, it seems some fans aren’t getting the message. Take for example, three of the bottom six in attendance. The Panthers, Islanders, and Devils all would be in the playoffs if they started today. However, none of them can manage to fill 90% of their stadiums. The Panthers and Devils would actually play each other in the first round. Imagine the low ticket prices!

How Fan Attendance Seems to Work

As mentioned before, the only real trend we see in fan attendance is history. Original Six teams are massively popular, taking all 5 top spots. This is in spite of the Maple Leafs being in dead last this year and poor in recent seasons as well. The Canadiens draw the second most crowds this year. I guess they haven’t watched as their club plummeted from the likes of hockey history in a single season.

There is no correlation between team success and fan attendance, it seems
There is no correlation between team success and fan attendance, it seems

In the bottom third, there are many expansion teams. The rich history of the Edmonton Oilers has not been enough to make up for mediocre performances and failed number 1 picks as they clock in at 20th. The aforementioned Coyotes and Hurricanes? Well, it just stands to reason that those aren’t the best places for a hockey team.

Curious numbers pop out, however. The Washington Capitals, who have superstar Alex Ovechkin (currently breaking records and being his usual fun self) and the best record in the league by miles, are not in the top ten in average attendance. The Panthers, a feel-good story, have Jaromir Jagr, insanely cheap ticket prices, and finally something to cheer about. But they remain in the dumps at 25th.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

What This Says About Fans

Hockey is growing in popularity in the United States. The NHL has been slowed by poor planning in TV markets and other issues, but fans turn out in the strangest of ways. The Leafs charge over $100 for the average seat, yet are constantly the butt end of jokes. Three playoff teams can’t manage to find their fanbase despite playing better than expected so far this year. It’s never as simple as just win more games.

Your club has to have rich history, an arena that feels more like a cathedral, players that work hard, and a city that is willing to give it its heart. It’s tough to win New York when three teams split the fans. It’s tough to bring people out to watch ice hockey in Phoenix when you can’t go out and play it yourself in the hot sun.

The Leafs and Habs this season are bad. But the cities of Toronto and Montreal bleed their colors. No amount of losses in a row will dampen their spirits. In order for your franchise to thrive, you need to win. But it’s not games you should search for; it’s hearts that are the true prize to be won.