Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hockey's magic number

The magic number for fans of the Nashville Predators this season has been 14,000: The paid attendance mark the fan base theoretically needs to achieve in order to stave off a potential relocation.

Historically, NHL teams have averaged about 15,800 fans per game since 1989-90, the last season for which I've been able to track down reliable attendance figures. (These are not paid totals, however, and we've long heard of the 'padding' that occurs with comped tickets — especially in some of the league's softer market.)

Over that 17 season span, from the end of the Oilers' dynasty in 1989-90 to last season, the Detroit Red Wings have been the NHL's top team for attendance, averaging nearly 20,000 fans per game for nearly two decades.

Of the 34 teams to play in those years, only seven have averaged lower attendance than the Predators — and four of those were relocated or folded by 1996-97.

In fact, the only team to have played every year from 1990 to last season and average less than 15,000 fans per game is the New York Islanders, who have averaged just 12,155 fans per game over the past 17 seasons:

The low end of the spectrum (the lowest eight teams in average attendance):

Boy, there are some ugly numbers in there.

The North Stars, for one, averaged just 7,838 fans one season in Minnesota, three years before going to Dallas. Carolina started below 10,000 before moving into a suitable arena.

Of all the teams represented there, however, the team that the Predators most closely resemble is the Hartford Whalers, who had a big dip in attendance, and as fans heard the overtures about the team leaving, they showed up in droves to 'save the Whale.' (Phoenix offers another close comparable.)

Here's a look at the Top 10 attended teams since 1990 (you'll have to click on this for the larger image):

Detroit's been a ridiculous model of consistency over the past 17 seasons, so much so that any potential drop off this season would be a huge story. Montreal's huge jump is, obviously, the result of their new monster building, a jump you see the Maple Leafs also make in 1999.

Columbus has to be a scary one for the league, given they're one of the few teams below the league average on this list.

Just outside of the Top 10 were: 11. Chicago, 12. Vancouver (hurt by a few low years in the late-90s), 13. St. Louis, 14. Tampa Bay, 15. San Jose.

Here's a look at the bottom six of today's current teams, and you can see where Nashville has fit in the past few seasons (this one has to be quite large to fit the detail in):

Nashville's in the same boat as Atlanta and Phoenix, essentially. Carolina's attendance has really taken off since 2006 (gee, I wonder why), while the Islanders are just god awful.

It'll be interesting to see how the new building improves the Devils' fortunes at the gate.

Historically speaking, the NHL's magic number for announced attendance is in the 15,000 range, close to the league average, and there are four teams falling short (Islanders, Carolina, Phoenix and Nashville). It's a dangerous spot to be.

Avg. attendance since 1989-90
1 Detroit Red Wings 19906
2 Montreal Canadiens 19171
3 Philadelphia Flyers 18545
4 Minnesota Wild 18403
5 Calgary Flames 17921
6 New York Rangers 17801
7 Columbus Blue Jackets 17317
8 Colorado Avalanche 17260
9 Toronto Maple Leafs 17255
10 Dallas Stars 17148
11 Chicago Blackhawks 16809
12 Vancouver Canucks 16616
13 St. Louis Blues 16471
14 Tampa Bay Lightning 16415
15 San Jose Sharks 16251
16 Buffalo Sabres 16075
17 Edmonton Oilers 15783
18 Ottawa Senators 15669
19 Pittsburgh Penguins 15601
20 Los Angeles Kings 15575
21 Washington Capitals 15474
22 Anaheim Mighty Ducks 15463
23 Florida Panthers 15309
24 Boston Bruins 15185
25 Atlanta Thrashers 15173
26 New Jersey Devils 15122
27 Nashville Predators 15072
28 Phoenix Coyotes 14820
29 x-Quebec Nordiques 14487
30 Carolina Hurricanes 13203
31 x-Winnipeg Jets 12878
32 New York Islanders 12155
33 x-Hartford Whalers 11889
34 x-Minnesota North Stars 11637

One more for good measure

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At 1:17 p.m., October 16, 2007, Blogger Bryan said...

Understandably, for Nashville the hard bottom of 14,000 is crucial, but I'd be interested to see those historical comparisons in terms of percent capacity full.

At 1:33 p.m., October 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Capacity full will be interesting for a team like the Islanders that have a small capacity even when full and for comparing teams that moved into bigger buildings like the Habs and Leafs.

Never realized how close to the League average the Preds had to maintain to remain viable in Nashville.

The Hawks and Isles are perfect examples of poor ownership eroding the fan base over time.

At 1:35 p.m., October 16, 2007, Anonymous Michael Schuerlein said...


One thing that needs to be addressed is the capacity for the Islanders arena. Even with the figure of 12155, that is only 4079 short of full capacity. As a season ticket holder, I have not seen that many empty seats in quite some time, so clearly the average was thrown way down during the tough time of the mid-nineties. A time when you couldn't give away tickets. Also note that ticket sales fluctuate with the economy, as Long Island is very expensive and many familys don't have that kind of disposable income.

Its the same everywhere, but most cities dont have three teams within 45 minutes to an hour apart.

Interesting post.

Michael S

At 1:38 p.m., October 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CANNOT believe the Caps average attendance!!! These must be number of tickets distributed, not through the turnstiles.

Do teams with buildings in the downtown core show a higher attendance figure and is this due to the ability to comp tickets to employees etc.?

The North Stars versus Wilds tickets are also a glaring example of smart fans staying away from a bad situtation. Too bad it will never work out in TO.

At 2:09 p.m., October 16, 2007, Anonymous Keith said...

Percent capacity really doesn't mean much unless the team is playing at capacity. Especially when the point is that a team needs to average x in order to be viable.

As far as measuring %cap goes, good luck. The Saddledome in Calgary over the timeframe James used has had at least four or five different capacities.

Or what do you do with Tampa, who list capacity at around 19,500, but managed to stuff nearly 23,000 in for game 7 of the finals in 2004?

At 3:17 p.m., October 16, 2007, Anonymous Jason Mandell said...

this is really good info james, thanks. one point i'd object to is the comparison between Hartford and Nashville. What people conveniently forget about the Whalers is that you are talking about perhaps the most futile sports franchise in history from a on-the-ice perfomance standpoint.

There's probably only 10 or so markets that could endure that kind of futility over 20 years or so (one playoff series win, 3 winning seasons, all in the mid to late 80s). even still, they drew pretty well esp when compared to some of today's franchises that have had far more success but still struggle at the gate. The Islanders and Predators being two examples.

A moderately successful team would have been very successful in Connecticut, which has bred a ton of great pros (Brian Leetch, Chris Drury, Craig Janney, and Chris Clark to name some). A team like Nashville has had the past couple of years would've been able to sell out an 18,000 arena nightly (which brings up another point that the arena only held about 15,000, which hurts the numbers a bit as they did sell out frequently during your period of analysis).

At 3:23 p.m., October 16, 2007, Blogger Kevin said...

Looking at the average attendance numbers list, the Sharks probably would be higher if they hadn't played their first two seasons in an arena with a capacity under 11000.

At 3:35 p.m., October 16, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

A lot of teams played in tiny buildings to start out: Ottawa, San Jose, Carolina, to name a couple. Many others have changed buildings over this time period, making it impossible to determine capacity for all 34 teams.

I'm afraid this is an accurate a portrait as you can get, fellas.

At 7:42 p.m., October 16, 2007, Anonymous Frisby said...

What is interesting to me is the rate of increase since the lockout. It looks like Carolina has had the most increase, followed by Nashville, Atlanta, and then the Islanders. The rest of the league has just been maintaining or decreasing. If both trends were to continue at the same rate, Nashville would have over the league average in a couple of seasons.

At 8:56 p.m., October 16, 2007, Blogger Sean said...

Interesting that the 50 000 or so fans who attended the Heritage classic bumped Edmonton's average attendance up so significantly that year.

At 9:40 p.m., October 16, 2007, Blogger Kevin said...

Oh, I understand, the Sharks are just the team I'm most familiar with :-)

At 11:22 a.m., October 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir,   Big Redwings/hockey fan. I have a few thoughts on attendance as the Wings have not completely sold out this year and yes, the average Joe can finally see a game at the Joe.    Can we stop trying to make this America's game and just stay keep the game in the North (using St. Loius as the border). I hate seeing Nashville and Atlanta eight times per year while only seeing the HATED Leafs once per year (and sometimes we don't even get to see them that often).     Time for retraction, get ride of those teams below the Hockey's Mason-Bixie line (see previous comment) and stop shopping Europe for players (except for Lindstrom, Datsuk, Holmstrom, and Zetterburg).Hockey is the most exciting sport in the buisness but it's not for everybody so lets not try and make this into something it's not.  Pure hockey fans will (mostly) always bee here so lets make sure we cater to the right folks (we need a Don Cherry jr to take over the NHL).Thanks for letting vent and please excuse the spelling mistakes.BryanP.S. Please renew ESPN's tv contract!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At 10:05 p.m., January 09, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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