In poker and in pro sports, the full house is a good thing. But it’s much easier to do in the former than the latter.
How does a team fill up its building as close to capacity for as many dates as possible? There are gimmicks, schemes, promotions, and any number of other methods which have varying degrees of success depending on the building and the location. Ultimately however, the one thing that impacts attendance more than anything else is the quality of the building’s tenant.
It’s easy to say, “[City X] is just not a hockey market.” Nonsense. Think Tampa Bay is a hockey market? Think Tampa Bay was a hockey market 1998-99 when it averaged 11,500 patrons per game, or just 58.2% of capacity? Think it’s a hockey market now because it averaged 20,509 spectators a game in 2005-06, which is 103.8% of capacity? Did 9,000 season ticket holders move to the Tampa-St. Pete area from other North American cities over a seven-year span, conveniently giving the Bolts the boost they needed to fill the Forum?
Nope. Stanley Cup. It’s as simple as that.
From 1993-94 through 2001-02, the Lightning was an NHL doormat that made exactly one playoff appearance. And the attendance reflected that. In the early seasons of its existence, the Lightning played in the monstrous Thunderdome, which had a capacity of 26,000. (The Lightning played its first season at tiny Expo Hall, where capacity was a mere 10,425.) Although the Bolts averaged better than 19,000 fans per game in their three seasons at Thunderdome, that figure was roughly three-fourths of capacity.
The team moved into its current home (capacity 19,758) in 1996-97. It made its first (and for a long time, its only) playoff appearance that season and drew an average of 17,412 folks per night. And in the subsequent seasons, it never again approached that number until it returned to the playoffs in 2002-03. The Lightning pushed its way back up to 16,545 that season, a figure that represented 83.7% of the Forum’s capacity.
A year later, the Lightning won it all. The Bolts averaged 17,820 fans (90.2% of capacity) in their championship season of 2003-04. The winner’s bump usually comes a year later, and such was the case with the Lightning. Despite an ugly and protracted labor dispute that shut down the NHL for an entire season, Lightning fans did not forget. When business resumed as usual, the Bolts outdrew their capacity, even though they barely snuck into the playoffs in 2005-06.
The Lightning is still rolling them in this season. Tampa Bay has drawn an average of 19,921 fans in 14 home dates thus far this season. That’s third in the NHL, trailing only traditional Original Six hockey hotbeds Montreal and Detroit.
After winning the Cup in 2004, the Lightning did something interesting off the ice. The team dubbed itself “Hockey Bay,” much in the manner that Detroit dubbed itself “Hockeytown” sometime after it stopped serving as the league’s perennial weak sister (sort of like that annoying guy you knew in college who gave himself a “cool” nickname, hoping it would stick). The front cover of Detroit’s 1996-97 press guide proudly trumpets: “Hockeytown, est. 1926.” Yeah, the franchise was established in 1926, but it’s funny how none of the powers that be ever called it that until the team had won a few straight division titles and was on the verge of claiming its first Cup after a 42-year drought.
The Caps played the Lightning in Tampa Bay on Tuesday. I watched the game with my son on television. He wanted to know why there was no Lightning logo on the ice at the center face-off circle (there was a lame Hockey Bay logo instead). It was a difficult question to answer in a manner that an eight-year-old would understand.
The Red Wings themselves are conveniently revisionist when it comes to attendance. Their media guide only lists attendance figures from the last 15 seasons. Okay, I figured. I’ll look in an older guide. I picked up the 1974-75 guide, only to find four seeminingly random seasons listed. They weren’t the four most recent seasons at the time, and only one of the seasons had an average figure above 14,000 anyway.
I can tell you this. The Caps visited Detroit three times in Washington’s inaugural season of 1974-75. There were 13,217 in the house on Oct. 19, there were 10,425 in attendance on Jan. 26 and 11,239 showed up on Apr. 2. The Hockeytowners were 23-45-12 that season. Detroit was then in the midst of a dark age in which it missed the playoffs 15 times in a 17-year span. That’s back when making the playoffs in the NHL was almost like a door prize. Show up and chances were better than three in four that you’d get into the postseason dance. Attendance in Hockeytown reflected the team’s performance on the ice during that dark period.
To be fair to the Wings, none of the Original Six teams lists a complete attendance history in its press guide. My guess is that few cared how many people were in the building back in the 1920s and 1930s, but I’m not sure. Anyway, we’ll deal with the evidence we do have. I brought up the Wings mainly because of the whole Hockeytown thing, and because they do have some shreds of attendance history available to be perused.
Carolina presents another interesting case. To the Canes’ credit, they did not rename the area “Hockey Triangle” after winning the 2006 Stanley Cup title. During their formative years as the Hartford Whalers, the franchise had some attendance ups and downs. Not coincidentally, the Whalers’ best attendance seasons were 1986-87 and 1987-88. Those were the seasons that followed two of the three best “on-ice” seasons the club had during its years in Connecticut.
The Canes moved south in 1997-98. Housed temporarily in Greensboro during its first two seasons, Carolina moved into its new and current home in 1999-00. They missed the playoffs and drew an average of 12,400 (66.2% of capacity) to a brand new building. They made the playoffs in 2000-01, and bumped attendance to 13,595 (72.6%) in the process. Finally, in 2001-02, the Canes went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. They drew 16,142 (86.2%) that season. They missed the playoffs the next two seasons, and attendance dipped as a result. Carolina drew an average of just 12,330 (65.8%) in 2003-04, the year before the lockout.
Last season started similarly for Carolina. After pulling in 18,787 fans for their home opener (which also featured Sidney Crosby), the team attracted 10,968 (a season low) and 12,116 and 13,098 to its next three home games. By this time the team was 6-2-1, and well on its way to a Southeast Division title. Attendance dipped below 12,000 only three times in the last 37 home dates of the season.
This season, the defending Cup champion Canes are playing to an average of 17,134 fans a night, or 91.5% of capacity. If they can maintain that number, it would be the best figure in the franchise’s 27 seasons in the league.
As a first-year expansion team, the Florida Panthers enjoyed 26 sellouts in 1993-94. They sold out all 41 dates at the old Miami Arena (capacity 14,703) in 1996-97, the season after they made their lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Riding that wave, they sold out 39 of 41 dates the following season, which was the last in Miami. The Panthers drew an average of 18,501 in their first season at brand new BankAtlantic Center, which holds 19,250. But the Panthers have made only one playoff appearance since 1997. And they haven’t won a playoff series since then. Attendance has reflected this; they’ve had 19 sellouts in the past six seasons and have nudged their averaged just over 16,000 only twice in that span. Florida is at 14,829 this season, the second lowest figure of the BankAtlantic era.
Buffalo has a good building in what is generally regarded as a good hockey market. But three straight seasons of missing the playoffs led to the two lowest seasonal attendance figures since the team moved into its new home in 1996-97. Then, bam. Lockout over, contending team in place and attendance back up to an average of 16,841 a night. This season, Buffalo had to cap its season ticket sales just so it would have some inventory of sinngle-game tickets to put on sale. The Sabres have sold out each game this season for an average attendance of 18,690. That would shatter the previous franchise record of 17,982, set in 1998-99. Naturally, that was the last time the Sabres advanced to the Cup finals.
Until last season, St. Louis was a perennial playoff team. Until last season, St. Louis drew well. The Blues played to at least 92% of capacity every season from 1989-90 to 2003-04. In 2005-06, the Blues missed the playoffs for the first time since 1978-79. St. Louis drew 14,213 last season, just 74.7% of capacity. The two worst attendance seasons in St. Louis franchise history were 1977-78 (59.1%) and 1978-79 (56.4%). Those are two of only four seasons in their entire history in which the Blues did not make the playoffs.
The Blues are at the bottom of this year’s attendance ledger with an average of 10,854 (57.1%). That’s the lowest percentage of capacity figure for any Blues team since 1978-79.
Detecting any patterns here? If you want an outlier, take the New Jersey Devils. They’ve been among the top teams in the league on the ice for the last decade and a half, but attendance generally hasn’t kept pace. The Devils don’t list attendance history in their 2006-07 press guide. They currently rank 28th in the league with an average of 12,616 for 10 home dates. New Jersey will move into a new building next season, and could get a bump from the change in venue. The location of the current building does not provide the rich game-day experience that some of its more urban counterparts can deliver.
As for our Capitals, their historical attendance pattern is no different from what is outlined above. The Caps drew an average of 10,004 in their inaugural season of 1974-75 when they iced what is arguably the worst team in the history of the NHL. Over the next seven seasons, the team got better, but never made the playoffs. And average attendance never rose above 11,377.
The team finally made its first playoff appearance in 1982-83, and attendance began to creep upward as a result. From 1983-84 through 1989-90, the figure rose each season to a high of 17,251 in 1989-90. The Caps enjoyed 23 sellouts (a franchise record, since matched) in 1988-89 and 18 in 1989-90. As the team tailed off from its best seasons in the mid- to late-1980s, so did attendance. The 1989-90 total was the high water mark for attendance at the old Capital Centre/USAir Arena.
The Caps moved to their current digs in downtown DC in the middle of the 1997-98 season. The first 10 dates of the campaign were played at USAir Arena, where the team drew an average of 13,668 that season. That was the lowest mark since 1983-84. For the final 31 dates at MCI Center, the Caps drew an average of 15,794.
This is the team’s eighth full season in downtown Washington. The Caps have exceeded the 17,000 threshold (in average attendance) in two of those seasons. The first was 1998-99, the season immediately after the only Stanley Cup finals appearance in franchise history. But the injury-riddled Caps missed the playoffs that season, and attendance dropped to 14,486 as a result. When the club returned to the postseason, a boost to 15,534 was noted in 2000-01. In July of 2001, the Capitals made a blockbuster trade to acquire Jaormir Jagr from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Attendance jumped to an all-time franchise record of 17,341 in 2001-02. But again, the Caps could not sustain that gate success. They missed the playoffs and attendance subsequently tumbled.
Last season’s average attendance of 13,905 was the lowest full season average since 1983-84. Currently, the Caps are 27th in the league with an average gate of 12,886. History shows that like most NHL teams, Washington’s attendance can be expected to rise when it wins. Or when it makes a big splash in personnel acquisition market.
I’m not advocating the former, but I am advocating the latter. Just don’t start calling it “Hockey Capital” come 2009 or so when the locals finally hoist the Cup.