Friday, August 12, 2011

Math Wiz: NHL Attendance, What it Means

Recently, The Hockey News writer/tv personality Adam "The Proteautype" Proteau weighed in on the importance of image for an NHL franchise. He brought up a great point about road attendance and how the Detroit Red Wings maintain an image of skill, speed, and a goon-less game that most fans seem to appreciate when the Wings come to town. The article had me thinking: what is more important to a team, selling out their arena at home or providing the road audience with a product worthy of paying money to see live? It's obvious the two things are connected since everyone is either the home team or the road team, international games notwithstanding. We'll get to that after the important question is answered.


It goes without saying that home attendance is vital to the survival of an NHL franchise. If you don't have the fans in your own city to sell out a building or to draw enough revenue to keep you out of the "red", then there may need to be more aggressive strategies pursued to fix the problem. With that said, twelve teams averaged 100% + attendance records at home during the 2010-2011 season, with four teams at 99% or better and three more with 94% or better. Your Terrific Twelve:

Chicago: 108.7%
Toronto: 102.9%
Philadelphia: 101.1%
Pittsburgh: 100.9%
San Jose: 100.4%
Vancouver: 100.3%
Boston, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, St. Louis, Washingon: 100%

No Detroit? Most would be surprised at this fact, but the truth is the economic turmoil of the past few years has hurt the team's home attendance. As the Puckfather Greg Wyshinski pointed out two years ago, if the best team can't sell out their conference championship games, it spells trouble for other teams. Fast forward to a couple years later, where the attendance at Joe Louis Arena is still 98.1%. We're not perfect anymore. Sound the alarms!

Getting back to the main point, none of the bottom ten teams are overly surprising given their age, location, or on ice (lack of) success. I'll spare the bottom teams the indignity of being identified, but you can find all the attendance numbers I used here on ESPN's website. Safe to say the bottom teams are either a product of relocation or are rumored in some part to be in serious trouble or are in need of relocation themselves.

Perhaps using percentages is unfair to teams that still draw huge crowds like Tampa Bay, where 17,268 is their average attendance, good for 18th place, but their percentage of 87.4% find them 21st. Not a huge leap backwards but by comparison, Edmonton sports a 100% attendance at 16,839, leaving them in 19th place in the league by the numbers. Confused yet?

To keep it simple, some teams have huge arenas they can't fill every night while other teams have smaller-by-comparison arenas that sell out every game. Edmonton is one of those "small market" teams that will never worry about not selling out their games, unless somehow the team is mismanaged into oblivion. Even then, I suspect that's happened before...

Adversely, the new Winnipeg team is destined to skyrocket from 28th place in attendance with a paltry 13,469 average attendance and a dismal 72.6% to at least 86% with their 13,000 season tickets sold. I think we can all bank on that building being packed to the roof every game this season, but without getting too presumptuous the Atlanta/Winnipeg situation is about to take a dramatic turn for the best with the relocation.

To conclude, If you can't keep you own barn full of happy fans willing to throw their money at your face in exchange for gear, hot dogs, beer, and other paraphernalia, then your team might need to introduce some more aggressive marketing. Or, like Atlanta, move somewhere else. Sorry Atlanta fans. You deserved better.


Now that I've convinced you all (and myself) that home attendance is important I'm going to argue that road attendance is equally, if not more, important. A team needs to be able to draw sellout crowds at home, but they need not rely solely on their own on-ice product to do so. The team that comes to town to play has a small but crucial role in bringing in fans. Typically, a team will still have tickets available for the fans travelling to watch their team play on the road. Perhaps there is a small contingent of Red Wings fans in Chicago or Toronto already; it may not be likely but a more reasonable suggestion would be that Red Wings fans make the three or four hour drive across the border. The central issue when it comes to road teams is this: how good is your team and is it worth a fans' money to watch you play?

For road attendance, the news is pretty good all around the league. There are no teams who sell out every road game, but the lowest capacity percentage are the Nashville Predators at 87.6%. The Detroit Red Wings are the NHL's most popular road team, bringing in 99.9% capacity rates on average in the league. Unfortunately, as great as the numbers are for the league for road attendance, it must be pointed out that the numbers are deceiving for a few reasons. First, unlike the home attendance numbers, the road numbers don't work with a consistent number of seats. Montreal's Bell Centre will always have a capacity of 21,273. Road calculations include an "average" capacity and an "average" attendance that varies based on the size of the arena. If Detroit plays a historic rival like Chicago in Chicago's massive United Center and helps to sell it out twice times, but plays Edmonton at Rexall Place twice and sells that out as well, then the numbers become skewed:

Game @ Chicago: 21,423
Game @ Chicago: 21, 423
Game @ Edmonton: 16,839
Game @ Edmonton: 16,839

Average attendance: 19,131

Detroit gets a boost from playing a rival with a huge arena, so much that the average attendance of the games is almost 3,000 more than the capacity of Edmonton's arena! This is sort of an extreme example because as of the 2010-11 season these two teams were the highest and lowest maximum capacity arenas, but the point should still be clear. Some teams can benefit from having division rivals with huge arenas and others will reap the rewards of an arena that will be packed regardless of who is in town.

It does, to an extent, come down to the entertainment value of the on ice product. There is a reason Detroit is the top road team in terms of attendance in the league. They are a fast, dynamic, and highly skilled team whose roster boasts a lot of future Hall of Famers, some of which have been doing their victory laps the past few seasons. Who wouldn't want to get a last look at a guy like Yzerman, Lidstrom, Modano, or others? I don't believe this is as important a factor as the quality of the team but my point is that if you can make your on ice product attractive, you will draw wherever you go.

The bottom five teams in road attendance reiterate the very points Adam Proteau made in his article from last week. Teams without an identity or a lack of explosive star power are stuck making the "hard sell" to get fans to buy tickets. Atlanta/Winnipeg, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Nashville all have mixed or unclear identities. Minnesota and Nashville have been consistently defense-first teams since their inception, which makes for a less exciting product but has helped both teams achieve some success on the ice. Atlanta/Winnipeg is slowly shaping an identity associated with young, skilled players but the big move north could change all of that. St. Louis is a surprise on this list but it's been a long time since the Hall and Oates era, and Al MacInnis isn't coming back to shoot the puck 100 miles an hour anytime soon. I shouldn't have to point out the obvious here but these teams all have one thing in common: they have never won a Stanley Cup and with the exception of Minnesota's agonizing cup run in 2003, none of them have significant playoff success to talk about since the lockout.

To conclude, the road numbers are a little deceiving to the naked eye. Unlike the home numbers, the road numbers are an average based on the average attendance divided by the average capacity. It's good to see that a huge chunk of the league can draw fans in any city. I can't help but look back at the home numbers and wonder if they aren't more reflective of a team's product since they are solid figures that don't lose analytically value because they represent an average based on where they play. Every team could stand to benefit from playing in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Montreal three times a year, where games will surely be sold out. Meanwhile, the Southeast division struggles mightily with attendance, arguably due to poor on-ice products.


There is another can of worms in the attendance question that I feel ill-prepared to ask and answer: what about pre-season and neutral location games? Do teams benefit from hosting an All-Star game? Information for the international games can be found here. Sadly there are no attendance numbers, but typically European rinks are smaller in terms of attendance capacity. As for neutral location pre-season games, They would not indicate much other than local interest in NHL exhibition games. I have my tickets already purchased for a preseason game between Montreal and Boston in Halifax. Should be a good time seeing the champs play their heated rivals.

In conclusion to the bigger questions this article aimed to address, it would appear that home attendance is more relevant statistic. I cannot be certain that the road numbers are entirely reflective of how well a team draws on the road, but it's interesting to see that on average, most teams play to a nearly full road barn. On-ice success and team identity contribute to bringing in fans in a road city, that much is sure. After all, it's simple logic; do you want to watch a recent Stanley Cup winning team, a historic franchise, a team stacked with skill, or teams who are almost always on the bubble of relocation and abysmal finishes? There is something to be said about watching the home team lay a beatdown on a weaker team, but you can only enjoy that so many times before you elect to stay home and watch Jersey Shore instead.

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