Saturday, December 15, 2007

Attendance woes in Columbus

The Blue Jackets felt as if they were up against not only the Ducks but two NHL officials, Dean Warren and Dean Morton.

By their way of thinking, perhaps the score should have read: Ducks and Deans 4, Blue Jackets 3 in overtime, before 11,984 in Nationwide Arena.
The fact people aren't showing up for hockey games in Ohio will probably bring a shrug from the majority of fans north of the border, but the Blue Jackets have historically drawn pretty well.

2000-01: 17,457
2001-02: 18,136
2002-03: 17,744
2003-04: 17,369
2005-06: 16,796
2006-07: 16,401
2007-08: 13,644

This despite the fact Columbus is on pace for its best season ever in the standings.

The Blue Jackets' plummet in attendance, all the way down to 26th so far this season, hasn't made many headlines — but it should be almost as big a story as Detroit's similar fall. Columbus was seen to be a precarious market going into the 2000 round of expansion but managed plenty of sellouts early, and there seemed to be some positive momentum there.

Now, they're looking like another Nashville.

Columbus is the second smallest American market in the NHL, larger than only Buffalo, and has less of a population base to draw from than even the Sabres, who rely heavily on Canadian patrons. Ohio's primarily a football, baseball and basketball state, home to the Browns, Reds, Indians and Cavaliers, and the NHL merely dropped a franchise in the one sizable city that lacked its own pro team.

Owner John McConnell is a great story, a World War II veteran who scraped together enough cash to form a small steel company in 1955, but he's not a big fish by pro ownership standards and the big losses likely to result from all these empty seats are sure to make him nervous. Sticking with Doug MacLean so long in a hockey operations role has cost this franchise plenty, and I wonder just how secure the NHL's future in Columbus is.

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At 4:27 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous rybu said...

I would guess low attendance in Columbus is due more to the recent banking crisis in the States than to anything else. People see their mortgage payments going up so they are less inclined to go to hockey games. Has attendance fallen in the other big ticket entertainment items in Ohio?

At 4:35 p.m., December 15, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

The Cavs are one of the most well-attended teams in the NBA. The Browns pack the house in the NFL. And while the Reds are low down in terms of attendance with about 25,000 per game, that figure's up since 2005.

At 4:42 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous Nael said...

James: You're forgetting the Cleveland Indians for baseball. And of course, being in Columbus, the Jackets also have to compete with the college athletic powerhouse that is Ohio State University, who I wager is probably more popular in the state than any one of the pro teams.

At 4:46 p.m., December 15, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Knew I'd forgotten someone.

The Indians' attendance is also significantly up compared to the past three years.

At 6:21 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first noticed Columbus fans during the draft, they looked amazing. The attendance numbers backed that up, great numbers even though the team sucked. Now that the team is getting close to the playoffs and is run by competent people, fans are not watching the games? That's weird. I hope Blue Jackets fans have a playoff appearance to celebrate in April.

At 6:38 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous Truth Serum said...

The numbers are down and I don’t see it improving unless the Jackets run the table on the remaining games through April. The hockey base here is small, so small that OSU only draws 2000 per hockey game, despite what their “official” numbers state.

The only local media that consistently covers the team is The Dispatch, the only newspaper in town. But they also have a financial stake in the team, so they better cover hockey. If you watch local news during the week, 80% of the sports coverage is about OSU football and this level of coverage starts in August.

But for whatever reasons, hockey fans are not turning out this season. The team has all kinds of promotions and you can buy the better lower bowl seats that sell for $80+ from scalpers for less than half price. The area where the team plays, the Arena District, is vibrant with a good selection of restaurants and bars, theaters, etc. So it’s not like the Arena is not a destination place.

Doug MacLean deserves a lot of blame for making unrealistic predictions and generally telling whoppers every time he was in front of a microphone. Two years ago, he told a reporter that he wouldn’t trade his team for the Detroit Red Wings. MacLean grabbed all the attention from the players and coaches, becoming the focal point of the team. The media never questioned him until things got out of hand. But by that time, the fans had enough of MacLean and the CBJ ownership had to act and remove him.

Is Columbus a hockey town? Three years ago, I would have said yes, but I can’t say that today. The team is playing much better and is more entertaining with young stars like Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, and Pascal Leclaire. But at the same time, OSU football can play lightweights like Youngstown St. or Akron U. and the town will stop everything to watch these unentertaining mismatches. Youth hockey is growing and thriving, and adult leagues play every night well past midnight. But the fans just don’t show up.

Both the Cinci Reds and Cleveland Indians had some recent poor attendance numbers due to their bad performances, but baseball is baseball. Football is the King in Ohio, from high school to pro.

At 6:44 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous jkrdevil said...

They have been so bad for so long that the fans are going to want more than a strong first half before they come back. Yes they have been good the first half however the casual fan sees the years of being a last place team more specially when the strong first half coincides with Ohio State Football going after a National Championship. If the team keeps it going in the second half and makes a playoff push I think the fans will be back.

At 9:19 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I"ll be burned as a heretic for even bringing this up, but has anyone stopped to consider tha "experience" of a college game vs a pro hockey game? And I'm just talking generic teams. Then factor in Ohio State, which would make the short-list of any college football fan's dream home game vs the entirely unwatchable hockey ouevre that is Ken Hitchcock's coaching career.
Considered in that context, I have to wonder how the BJs manage to draw as many fans as they do.

At 9:40 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous Truth Serum said...

No one is a heretic here. A couple of points:

1. I don't think OSU football and hockey fans are the same. More and more, I think they are different species.

2. My earlier post questioned how many hockey fans live here. We may be seeing the actual number now. The 12,000 who currently show up for every game also attended in the previous years, but were then joined by the novices, freebie beneficiaries, and other non-hockey people. This latter group does not attend in large numbers anymore because they don't get free tickets or they came in the past but saw the team lose.

Ken Hitchcock is a defensive coach, but the team is more exciting under him because they compete better and they win more.

Finally, there is only one or two OSU home games worth seeing every year and the Michigan game is one of them. OSU plays the softest schedule out there.

At 9:52 p.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous Sarah said...

I don't think the attendance problems have one cause, so there's not necessarily one easy solution.

Obviously, the biggest reason attendance has fallen off is six straight years with no playoffs. That killed a lot of the early enthusiasm and goodwill the team had. And yeah, the team is better this season, but they really haven't produced a real sustained winning streak of the sort that would make people take notice. They're still winning one night, losing the next. The cumulative record is better, but I think a lot of casual fans see the "Jackets lose" headline in the paper one morning out of two and figure "same old Jackets."

There also seems to be a clique of people who are hockey fans but got so turned off during the Doug era that they're now reflexively negative about the team, and probably will be until they win a few playoff series. See the comments on the Dispatch's Puck-Rakers blog most any day for examples.

Although the team's poor performance over its history is probably the biggest reason for the declining attendance, I think there are others.

First, the lockout really hurt. I can think of people I know personally who were season ticket holders and big fans before 2004-05 that just got so angry about the lost season that they never came back. For others, the year without hockey reintroduced them to other sports or hobbies to fill the time, and they just never got back into the sport.

Second, and related, the low profile of the NHL in general, and the knocks it takes from ESPN et al hurt. Although it seems silly to me as a hockey fan for 21 years to not follow the sport because ESPN says "no one cares about hockey," I think there are sports fans out there who are influenced by that. I post on the boards, and every so often there will be a post there from someone talking about how they wish Columbus would get a major league team -- "and the NHL doesn't count." I think if more casual sports fans saw the NHL as something worth paying attention to, more of them would be in the stands in Columbus.

Third, as Truth Serum points out, local media coverage of the team is poor. The Dispatch does a decent job (even if it is for self-interested reasons), but the electronic media largely ignores the team. Which no doubt reinforces the notion that they're not "major league" and not worth paying attention to.

Fourth, as noted above, the economy is in no great shape right now. Columbus is better off than some other cities in Ohio because big employers like the state gov't and OSU are (somewhat) recession proof, but the economy is still not great, there are problems with foreclosures in some areas, and a lot of people probably are cutting back on entertainment spending as a result.

There are more reasons as well -- OSU doing so well the past few years in football, last year's OSU basketball team doing well, the newness factor of the arena and the Arena District wearing off.

I'd also note that the numbers may be somewhat misleading. There's a lot of suspicion that the previous regime engaged in a lot of papering of the bowl. Certainly, I can think of games I attended in 2005-06 and 2006-07 that had announced attendance of 15K, but looked as empty as some of the 11K games this season. So it's quite possible attendance actually bottomed out last year and not this year. Hard to prove anything, though.

I do still believe that if the team continues to be reasonably competitive, attendance will improve next month once OSU football is over. And a solid playoff run would help a lot, although it still might not get us back to the nightly sellouts of 2001-02, for the reasons listed above.

At 2:56 p.m., February 04, 2008, Blogger Bialynia said...

So the Columbus Crew have a higher average attendance then the Jackets? Wait until they get a DP.

At 10:57 p.m., February 04, 2008, Blogger KJ said...

I am fairly certain that the attendance numbers you see "announced" for any NHL team, are in fact "paid attendance", not actual butts in seats. Im sure that has been going on since day one w/ the Jackets, as it does with every other NHL club. The Caps do it too, I know because ive seen it over and over. They'll announce 14K, but really there are atually about 7-10K ACTUALLY there. That happens all over the NHL, and it is more noticeable for teams when they go through periods of lower attendances.

MLS does something similar, and announces "tickets distributed" per match, and sometimes that number is different than the amount of people actually in the stands, especially for smaller market teams like Columbus & KC.


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