If you build it, will they come?


With Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold in the press this week talking about his team’s soft attendance, all of the contraction-mongers are out and about talking about bad markets, bad attendance, bad everything. Thing is, a lot of those people have valid points…but a lot of those people are off the mark as well.

In my opinion, for whatever that’s worth, attendance should be really driven by performance (with tradition and local economics factoring in too). Even teams with good traditions experience soft attendance when a team is terrible. So with that in mind, I looked at a team’s percentage of capacity for this year (because pure attendance numbers are misleading) when compared to last year and I threw in three sidebars on my nifty Excel spreadsheet:

1) Conference leader: Any team above 60 points
2) Playoff hunt: Any team within at least 5 points of a playoff spot
3) Last season: Whether or not a team made the playoffs last season

I’ve color-coded the answers to those three issues as follows:

Green = Yes for all three
Yellow = Yes for two
Grey = Yes for one
Red = None

Also, I marked in red whether or not the team’s differential from last season is negative.

So, what’s the result? Check it out:

Looking at this, it’s not really a surprise that the worst teams in percentage of capacity are teams that are currently out of the playoff picture and weren’t involved last season. In terms of drop off, LA and Phoenix are the hardest hit; LA especially shouldn’t be a surprise because of the disaster of last season and the fact that everyone knows they’re in rebuilding mode. In addition, Florida’s poor attendance can at least in part attributed to poor performance. Tampa Bay’s drop-off isn’t surprising considering that they were coming off a Cup championship last season and the team has middled around .500. Chicago has been poisoned by the Wirtz ownership disaster even though they are playing better this season and St. Louis has scared people off by going into full rebuilding mode.

I am, however, kind of surprised that Washington’s numbers are down. Considering the Alexander Ovechkin hype and the fact that they’re still in the playoff hunt, the Caps really should be doing on-par, if not better than last season.

One thing to consider is that these percentages are snapshots midway through the season. NHL attendance usually strengthens as we get closer to the playoff race and the NFL goes away. In those cases, I expect Atlanta and Anaheim to have an uptick in their overall attendance. In addition, the big test for Atlanta will be next season — will they stall like Nashville did or will their attendance stay strong like Tampa Bay did after their 2003 playoff run? Based on what GM Don Waddell has told the press, things should be strong for Atlanta as the team has had stronger attendance as the year has gone on.

The fact that the Islanders are bleeding people despite a reasonable season is somewhat surprising. I thought that the team had hit rock bottom, but the fact that they aren’t doing terrible and they are drawing less than last season has to be a disappointment for Charles Wang. Still, however, my gut tells me that if the Isles can sneak into the playoffs and regain some of their community reputation, things should stabilize.

To me, the biggest problems here are Nashville and New Jersey. Both are in the “green” category which means that if we were basing attendance on performance, both should at least be in the top half. Nashville is at least up slightly and they should get better the closer we get to the playoffs, but New Jersey’s 3.5% drop off is definitely problematic. Both teams, however, simply shouldn’t be playing to the levels they are at.

What does this all mean? Well, for one, critics of Nashville as a market have some substance to their argument. For the Panthers, it’s hard to tell whether or not the team will ever return to the capacity-crowds of the rat-trick era. The fact that the South Florida lacks hockey tradition could make rebuilding very difficult. The problem isn’t that they’re out of the playoffs; the problem is that they’ve been out of the playoffs for so long and they traded one of their two franchise players while only getting seven games out of Todd Bertuzzi. As for New Jersey, the jury is out until the team moves into its new digs in Newark.

If I really, really, really wanted to get into the NHL market, buying and moving the Penguins would be my #1 choice. However, trying to relocate Nashville or Florida still seem to be pretty feasible. Next season really has to be a make-or-break year in Nashville; if they can be one of the best, most exciting teams in the league for two seasons straight and they STILL can’t draw a decent crowd, well, Kansas City sure has a nice arena.

Update: Just to clarify, I’m not saying the Pens are the most likely to move. I’m saying that if I wanted to buy a team, they’d be my top pick because of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury. Sorry if anyone misunderstood that — and from the emails I got, I’m guessing I need to be more clear on my choice of words!


9 Responses to “If you build it, will they come?”

  1. 1 Sean Cunningham

    Very interesting column, Mike — as a Predators fan from Nashville it was certainly disheartening for our team to be in the news for attendance problems and relocation discussions rather than for being the second best team in the NHL (hopefully #1 after tonight.) Unfortunately the local media here tends to cover the team in the same way: focusing on the misfortunes rather than the victories.

    Having viewed your data (well done, by the way) one thing jumps out at me: why is there no relocation discussion of a team like St Louis or Phoenix, two teams who’s attendance is far lower than Nashville’s and who are on a severe downward slide from last year to this? I can only assume that the answer for St. Louis at least, is tradition. But I’m at a loss to understand why there’s not upheaval in Phoenix.

  2. 2 Mike Chen

    My main logic behind not discussing Phoenix yet is because I’m looking at attendance as related to performance. The Yotes aren’t doing terrible (I think averaging about 15,000) even though they’re a sub .500 team and they have a great new arena. If the Yotes were drawing the same way with a record like the Preds, I think they’d instantly rocket to the top of relocation.

    Same thing with St. Louis — they get a pass (for now) because they lost Pronger and are in full rebuilding mode.

  3. 3 Drew Murphy

    Mike, you are right. KC has VERY nice brand spanking new arena being built now. And they need an anchor tenant. Come to KC !!!

  4. 4 Sean Cunningham

    Drew, you’re welcome to pick up the Kansas City Coyotes, but the Preds are staying put! A Stanley Cup win would (God willing) light a fire under the businesses here in Nashville and get them to support the team.

    That’s really what all this talk is about – getting local businesses to buy out the seats. Whereas the league average of business to personal season tickets sold is around 65/35, Nashville is just the opposite. Over 65% of the season tickets here are sold to individuals.

    The only reason the move came up was because Craig Leopold mentioned his desire for a local well known businessperson (read: country music singer) to buy out around 40% of his ownership in the team. That lead to discussion of the opt-out clause that the Predators have with the Gaylord Entertainment Center in which they can elect to break their contract if average attendance does not reach 13,500 this year and then roughly 14,000 the next. Currently the average attendance is arounnd 14,000. If that clause were invoked because of such a drop in attendance, the city/stadium would then be given one year to turn things around. Fortunately, the attendance numbers are high enough that the opt-out clause is not an option – yet.

  5. 5 Anonymous

    The sky is falling!
    The sky is falling!
    The sky is falling!

    Thanks for the update, Chicken Little.

  6. 6 mogulboy

    Great bit of research, Mike. I’ve been searching for some of this data for a while. I am new to the Seattle area and have been wondering why Seattle doesn’t have a hockey team or isn’t even considered for Expansion/Moving a franchise. I will cut to the chase, it is the Arena, we don’t have one and no one wants to build one to keep the sonics in town. KC and Ok. City both have arenas and they are usually the city’s mentioned as getting an NHL franchise but what is preventing those two cities from becoming the next Nashville? It seems like the NHL narrowly focused on the Arena, and not paying attention to things like Per Capita income, Population and other factors. Is focusing on the Arena the right thing to do?

    For the record I do not want to see any franchise to leave the city they are in. It was heart renching to see my favorite sports team to leave my hometown when I was a kid and I don’t wish that pain on anyone.

  7. 7 Anonymous

    Mr. Chen, you demonstrate your ignorance when you say that moving the Pens would be your first choice. The Pittsburgh franchise has not been in the playoffs since 2001, has the most outdated building in the NHL, and has suffered rumors of franchise relocation, yet, it ranks 16th out of 30 on your list. Keep in mind many of the franchises below Pittsburgh on your list are larger markets. Also, as I understand it, the Pittsburgh has the highest ratings in tv viewership of all NHL markets,and has had a number of sell outs recently. Despite your wishes and dire predictions, the situation will be stabilized in Pittsburgh, and Penguin hockey fans will enjoy the team for many years to come. If you are so intent on moving a franchise, look elsewhere. Pen fans have been very loyal to the team over the many lean years, and continue to be some of the best fans in the game.

  8. 8 Mike Chen

    I didn’t say moving the Pens would be my first choice. I said that they’d be my first pick if I was buying a team because I’d want their talent. Big difference.

  9. 9 Anonymous

    KC is patiently waiting for a team. Oklahoma City has decided against going for the Pens. Myself I’m impatiently waiting for a team. KC NEEDS HOCKEY – I’M BORED (and too broke to traverse to St. Louis all the time!)

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