It’s October, so we should be used to seeing scary things. Except when it comes to attendance in sports. With the 2017/18 season barely begun, we’re already seeing some disappointing attendance numbers in places like Carolina. And there doesn’t appear to be any reason to be optimistic in places such as New Jersey, Arizona or Florida either.
So the first question is, how did it come to this? Teams such as the Islanders, the Devil’s and more recently the Hurricanes have Stanley Cup banners hanging in their mostly empty arenas. So it’s not like these franchises have never tasted the ultimate success.
So we’ll start with the Islanders. Since moving from Long Island to Brooklyn, the Islanders have seen their attendance drop an average of 20% per game since their Long Island days. And it’s not like they’ve had any real success in decades. This once powerful franchise has been a laughing stock for years now. A franchise that names a then newly retired goalie, Garth Snow as their new General Manager, usually isn’t a good sign. Who then went on to sign goalie to a 15 year, 67.5 million dollar contract.
The NHL wasn’t too thrilled with that and this is why there’s provisions in the current collective bargaining agreement that this stuff doesn’t happen anymore.
But that’s just one example of mismanagement. The Islanders haven’t been a consistently good team for a long time. And whenever they seems to find any traction, they usually find some way to trip up again. Not exactly the kind of stuff that gives a fan base any real hope for the future.
Then there’s the New Jersey Devils. A team that’s been through 15 head coaches since 2000. Another once powerful franchise that has three Cup banners hanging in it’s home in the Prudential Center where they’ve been since 2007.
Even in 2010, the Devils tried to pull an “Islanders” and sign forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17 year contract, which the NHL shot down faster than Harvey Weinstein’s career plunge.
And the Devils just haven’t been a good team for nearly a decade.
Meanwhile over in Phoenix, it’s been business as usual. Cheap tickets, $1 beer nights, you name it. Everyone knows the Coyotes woes. So here’s a tale about their former Central Hockey League affiliate, the Arizona Sundogs which pretty much sums up hockey in Arizona:
The Sundogs started thinking outside the box in August 2013, with a promotion that promised (then) general manager Chris Presson (and a few others) “would remain atop a 33-foot scissor lift until 300 season tickets were sold.” Initially Presson thought the stunt would take 2-3 days, but nobody seemed to take notice until the event had dragged on through Day 5.
Dubbed “Whatever it Takes,” the promotion ended up taking substantially more than the franchise had first anticipated—they finally met their goal on Day 6 (h/t Deadspin.) Given how lackluster the fan response was in 2013, the Sundogs’ decision to up the ante in 2014 was equal parts stupid and inspired.
In June both GM Presson and majority owner Brad Fain agreed to be buried alive until the team sold 300 season tickets. They were put in an “eight-foot container with a grated cattle guard on the top, allowing for air circulation and the opportunity for fan interaction.” Though it’s not clear, exactly, what their time frame was, 10 days later the team had reached their goal, and the fellas emerged from their crypt.
The most stunning event of all was the fact that the Sundogs completely ceased operations a month later. (Source The Bleacher Report).
The Florida Panthers have never had good attendance figures. The problem is this is Florida, not Manitoba. Not enough sports fans in Sunrise can tell Luongo from Ekblad, and that won’t change until the Panthers, which have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 15 seasons, are any good.
And let’s not forget the “Rat Promo” they once held in 2016. The Panthers received two delay of game penalties against the Devils because what fans they did have in attendance littered the ice with plastic rats they were giving away.
The Panthers can’t even give away free plastic rats without them coming back to bite them.
And now the most likely relocation candidate is the Carolina Hurricanes. The “Caniacs” as the team likes to call it’s loyal season ticket holders, are few and far between.
This season, the cheapest ticket to see a Canes game is $82, which compared to most NHL cities, ain’t bad. But apparently they might as well be asking a $1000.
Their opening night attendance was announced at 10,000, with it dropping to just over 7800 for game two. Sound the alarm bells!
And they’re not a bad looking team either. There’s a reason to have hope in Raleigh this season. But they are already struggling to make a connection with new and old fans.
One Canes fan on SB Nation was suggesting the team is just awful at marketing the team in Raleigh. They’re not in the community like other teams are. They’re just an afterthought to what Cam Newton wore in his last press conference.
So why are these teams still where they are? The person to best answer this of course is every hockey fans favorite whipping boy, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. In an interview with the National Post, this is how Bettman has reasoned it at least in his own mind:
“To compare a club that’s 20 years old to one that’s a hundred years old is a difficult comparison to make. Obviously, a club that’s been passed on has a rooting interest from (multiple generations that) is a lot different than a club that’s in its first or second generation.
“Every team will build its history and traditions, but we’re probably 50 to 100 years away from newer clubs having the same history and tradition as the Original Six.”
Apparently Gary is a very patient man. Of course it’s ultimately the NHL’s Board of Governors that make the final approval on team relocations and expansions, but everyone knows Gary holds the influence.
The NHL is somehow determined to make every team viable. At least relevant in it’s own city. TV contracts are an important thing to the NHL. Especially in America. So if NBC told the NHL they’d like to see the Hurricanes moved to Seattle when their new arena is built, how fast would that happen then I wonder?
So in the end, as long as those teams respective owners are prepared to pay the bills, those teams are staying put. Then again, all of them can look at what’s happening in the NFL to the Rams and Chargers in Los Angeles.
Two newly relocated franchises in the same major market that has yet to make an impact with the locals. And this was supposed to be a football market.
So let’s face it. Outside of Quebec City, what other city is guaranteed success with an NHL franchise?
Seattle? Kansas City? Houston? Is there a demand for the NHL in those cities currently? As in there’s at least 20,000 fans ready to pluck down thousands for season tickets and merchandise?
No one has the answer to that yet. Not the owners, not the board of governors, not Gary Bettman. They have their own backyard to tend to first.
If Gary was a boss of a company, instead of firing an underperforming employee, he’s being patient with them in the hopes that one day they’ll perform as well as the others.
Not exactly the best business model. But for the time being, it’s the best they can do.