NHL Attendance is Alive and Well

With the NFL appearing to be wrapping up its summer-long fake lockout, and the NBA embarking on what seems to be a long and painful lockout that will actually cost the league games (if not an entire season or more) and potentially players, the fact that the NHL is entering a “contract year” scares me more than a little. The fact that nobody wants to talk about the real possibility of dragging our feet into another that-which-may-not-be-named concerns me a little bit as well. I know that CBAs get done behind closed doors, but as fans it may help to put a little pressure on the situation.
After my recent dialogue concerning attendance with some superb writers who align themselves with the interests of the Columbus Blue Jackets, I decided to dig a little deeper to see what we could find out about attendance as an indicator of the overall health of the NHL.
I know that most hockey purists cringe at the comparisons with the NBA, but based on the similarities of season schedules, shared cities and sometimes even arenas, I don’t think a comparison between the two leagues’ recent attendance records should be considered blasphemous.

Game attendance is certainly not the only thing that goes into a league’s financial health, but since these things aren’t publicly traded entities, we don’t exactly have an annual report with financial statements to look at. Additionally, I think attendance does go a long way toward giving an overall indication of whether a league or sport (or team) is trending up or down. If you can fill arenas, you have a future. All the rest of the revenue sources — television deals, advertising space, etc. — help determine whether your league can rise to the level of “best in the world” within its sport. I don’t think that there’s any doubt at this point that both the NHL and NBA are currently regarded as the best hockey and basketball leagues in the world according to the majority of players, advertisers and others within the industry. That’s important, but for now, let’s look at those attendance figures alone.
There seems to be a general perception amongst people who don’t do any research that the NBA is a lot bigger than the NHL. This term “bigger” is a little abstract, but I will admit that revenues for the NBA should be bigger based on a higher level of popularity amongst the “average fan.” There’s that term “popular.” If popularity is the trait by which success is measured, we can let the NBA win that one. Because it doesn’t matter how popular you are, if you can’t turn a profit — see $90 million loss this season by the NBA collectively, and that’s not considering the extra $250 million that the league is claiming to have “lost” through creative accounting for depreciation, amortization, etc. — then your long-term health isn’t there. That’s kind of like bragging about how muscular and good-looking you are right now, but dismissing the fact that HGH has caused a couple cancerous cells to replicate at speeds that are now too fast to contain. Congrats to the NBA for out-bench pressing us for a while, but now it’s time to pay the piper.
Besides, success is very much relative. If the NHL has half the fan total of the NBA, but a quarter of the cost, then who’s actually succeeding? But I digress.
Here is a table showing the number of franchises that sold 98% or more of their 41 home game tickets in the past three years. Remember, each league has 30 teams, so there’s no advantage either way.

It is clear that both leagues are trending upward, which is a good thing, but it’s also clear that the NHL packs more arenas than the NBA does. Perhaps this is a result of the NBA’s movement away from the middle and toward a league where stars play in star cities with other stars. Whatever the reason, the NHL consistently tallies more teams that sell 98% or more of their capacity than the NBA does, and it hasn’t been that close.
If you think this statistic is the result of some denominator advantage where the study was skewed toward the NHL to begin with, think again. In cities that boast teams in both leagues, the franchise with the better standing in its league almost exclusively owned the higher attendance record. So again, winning matters.
There are some instances where NBA and NHL teams share buildings. One of those instances is in Chicago, where the Blackhawks and Bulls split time at the United Center. Both franchises are in great positions in their leagues at this time, and were both tops in their league in total tickets sold to their 41 home games in 2010-11. This past season, the Bulls outsold the Blackhawks by 15,106 tickets total, or about 368 butts per game. In the prior season of 2009-10, the Blackhawks outsold the Bulls by 4,507 total tickets, or 110 people a night. It should be noted that the hockey team did this with only 40 recorded home games, compared to the basketball team’s 41. Add an average night of 21,000 folks at that last Hawks game, and the disparity would have actually been bigger than the one the Bulls enjoyed this past season. And that was before the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup champions, and none of the playoff games counted toward this stat. Hard to see those figures and argue that basketball is a lot better off than hockey. At least not at the ticket gate.
Other instances of shared arenas were not as close. In Philadelphia, the Flyers violently outsold the Sixers (by 33 percent). The story was the same in Washington, where the east-leading Capitals outdid the Wizards by about 66,000 tickets in 41 home games.

The NHL didn’t always lead the way in shared-arena circumstances, but perhaps another astonishing statistic is that the Lakers outsold the Kings by less than a thousand seats a game. That’s in Los Angeles, where the Lakers were two-time defending champions and enjoyed a regular season that saw them grab the 2 seed in the west. Conversely, the Kings have never won the Stanley Cup and have made the second round of the playoffs exactly once since 1993. Additionally, the Kings played the kind of season that saw them finish 7th in the west. Still, the gap between the Kings and the most popular team in the NBA was 914 people a night. With the potential ascent of the Kings, who are now a year older and new owners of Mike Richards, coupled with the departure of Phil Jackson from the Lakers and an aging superstar that is surrounded by questionable bench players, does anybody think that gap might actually close in 2011-12?
Again, in order to properly evaluate the health of the NHL we would need much more information. But as far as game attendance goes, the league could hardly be healthier. Eighteen of thirty teams selling 98 percent or more of their tickets is truly amazing, especially in a day and age where high-definition flat-screen TVs, social media and higher unemployment all contribute to lowering the motivation to actually go to games.
There’s still a long way to go toward a new CBA in our beloved league, but the revenue stream appears to be there, backed by the high attendance figures and the new television deal with NBC and Versus that is set to last ten years. Here’s hoping that’s good enough to vanquish “he who must not be named” for at least another five or six years.

If you’re interested in viewing these attendance figures for yourself, they can be found here and here. Take from them what you will.

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