by Mike Chen on 06/01/09 at 12:00 PM ET
From Gary Bettman’s State of the League presser before Game 1:
We believe that our franchises can all be successful where they’re currently located. And somebody could have asked me the same question that you just asked eight years ago about the Canadian franchises. They could have said; ‘Why do you have any franchises other than Toronto or Montreal?’ eight or ten years ago, because the buildings in all the other places were two-thirds to half empty.
Well, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration…but it’s not totally false. Though perhaps Bettman got his tongue tied and meant that the buildings were 2/3 full to half empty. A 2/3 empty building is pretty freakin’ empty.
Andrew’s Stars Page has attendance numbers dating back to the 1980s, and you can see that Canadian strongholds Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver went through their own lean stretches. As with most attendance woes, a lot of this was based on performance. Even for the most die-hard hockey fan, it’s hard to consistently shell out cash for a crappy product.
Peak 1990s Attendance: 19,986 (90-91; renovations in 1994 reduced this to 19,289).
Low point: 16,847 (97-98), 16,202 (98-99), 15,322 (99-00), 16,623 (00-01), 15,718 (01-02)
Peak 1990s Attendance: 16,843 (90-91, capacity)
Low point: 13,478 (93-94), 13,124 (94-95), 12,335 (95-96)
Peak 1990s Attendance: 17,795 (95-96, GM Place opens)
Low point: 15,803 (98-99), 14,642 (99-00)
Not surprisingly, these low points are consecutive periods where the team just wasn’t that good. The Canucks failed to qualify for the playoffs from the 96-97 season to the 00-01 season, and smack in the middle of that comes these low attendance numbers. The Oilers failed to make the playoffs in four straight years starting with the 92-93 season, and Edmonton’s attendance dropped in the second year of that bad streak. The Flames didn’t make the playoffs for seven straight seasons, and not surprisingly, the dip in attendance started in the second year of that streak.
Think about it this way: when teams go from good to bad, there’s usually one transition year where expectations are high and everything goes wrong. During that year, attendance usually starts strong and begins to trail off as the playoffs seem further and further away. The following year, attendance takes a big hit, and it goes up and down depending on how long the non-playoff streak lasts.
Every team has its ups and downs, though the valleys are often determined by the team’s market and its level of corporate sponsors filling the seats (like in New York or Toronto). The economy factors in also, such as Detroit’s dip in attendance in 07-08.
This isn’t condoning or condemning the move of the Phoenix Coyotes. It’s simply saying that the argument about attendance can’t fully be supported until the team has consistent on-ice success with a good facility. Even the most fanatical of hockey markets will see a dip in attendance when the team misses the playoffs for a few years.
Would Phoenix ultimately support a good team? I don’t know the market well enough. We’ve seen pretty consistent long-term success in non-traditional markets like San Jose and Dallas, and we’ve seen the New Jersey Devils fight attendance problems coming off Stanley Cups. To cement yourself into a community, you need to win, you need good management, you need good public outreach, and you need an identifiable personality that the fans can connect with (whether that’s a superstar or grinder, it doesn’t matter).
This isn’t about fan support or traditions, it’s about making money. If local businessmen decide that they could make money in the Phoenix/Glendale area—either directly through the team’s accruing value or indirectly by commercial development around the arena—then they’ll buy the team. If they don’t see value in that, then the team goes elsewhere following the standard rules and processes of all sports leagues.
And one thing I can guarantee is this: despite all the overtures about Southern Ontario deserving another team, if the Hamilton Ex-Coyotes put up the same on-ice record as Phoenix has seen for the past decade or so, you’d have the same attendance problems.
People like winners. People don’t like losers. There’s plenty of data to support that, despite the market.
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