Red and Black Hockey
by David Lee on 04/25/11 at 10:19 PM ET
I noticed a lot of buzz on my Twitter feed today about the Albany Devils and some of the tweets were pretty awful. I had to find out what was the rumpus. It basically has to do with their attendance woes and the cavalier attitude that the front office has in reference to this. This season, the Albany Devils (top affiliate of the New Jersey Devils) were the worst team in the American Hockey League and their attendance numbers were by far the worst in the league. The truth of the matter is that Albany hasn’t had much success at the gate for several years. In the mid-1990s they were a great team on the ice and at the box office, but it’s gone downhill over the last several seasons.
At the conclusion of the regular season, Albany GM Chris Lamoriello ruffled some feathers when he casually said:
We don’t worry about the people that aren’t here. We worry about the people that are here. That is our focus”
When you’re averaging 3,100 people a game, the focus needs to be on getting more people in the stands. That’s dead last in the league, more than 2,200 under the league average. Hockey fans in Albany are upset with this attitude, and they should be.
In the summer of 2006, the cities of Lowell, Massachusetts and Albany, New York swapped AHL teams. The Lowell Loch Monsters (Carolina Hurricanes) moved to Albany, and they took on the existing team name “Albany River Rats”. Obviously, the players changed, but the team colors of red and black stayed the same. The mascot stayed the same. A few minor changes to the uniforms, and the transition was complete. Casual fans might not have noticed the difference in players and parent club affiliation. And let’s be honest: the American League is pretty casual.
The “new” River Rats were a good product on the ice, but the attendance numbers were always near the bottom. Always below the league average. It didn’t make much of a difference when Carolina took over the team. On the other hand, when the Devils took over the Lowell team, their already bad attendance numbers got worse progressively for the first three years of that deal, hitting a rock bottom of 2,102 fans per game in the 2007-08 season. They got a little better for the next couple of years, but Lowell always had the lowest attendance in the league.
This season, a lot changed in the AHL. There isn’t a team in Lowell anymore. The Lowell Devils moved back to Albany. The Albany River Rats moved to Charlotte. A few other changes occurred, but the only thing important to this conversation is the Lowell/Albany/Charlotte connection.
All season long, Albany has had the worst attendance. They had 5,235 people on opening night. They had a “home” game in Atlantic City that drew 5,135. That’s not incredibly lame, but those were banner nights, and they made the season average of 3,114 seem much better than it really was. Towards the end of the season, they started to pick up, but there were nights in December where they were getting 1,300 people to the games. There’s a lot that’s not right when that’s happening. What’s making people upset is that Lamoriello and the rest of the front office is acting like there isn’t a problem.
In today’s Albany Sun-Times, Pete Dougherty reported that the Devils are looking to repair their image. Executive Director Chris Ciceri and Vice President of Sales and Marketing Chris Valente said that they “stuck with what (they) knew” from their years in those positions in Lowell. They said that they knew what worked and what didn’t and brought those same ideas to Albany. There’s two problems with that philosophy, though.
- Albany isn’t Lowell.
- What they were doing in Lowell WASN’T WORKING
Valente went on to say—and this is what gets people upset—that they were exactly where they wanted to be.
Our goal was 120,000 (total fans for the season), and we hit it right on the button
Their goal was to be last in the league? How can that be? More importantly, this is nothing to brag about. Again, Valente claimed success by pointing to the fact that the 2010-11 Albany Devils did better at the gate than the 2009-10 Lowell Devils. He points out, correctly, that there was a difference of +25% using those parameters. What he doesn’t point to is that the league as a whole saw an increase of +5%. He also doesn’t point out that the 2010-11 Albany Devils attendance figures represent a drop of 17% from the 2009-10 Albany River Rats.
Again, Albany isn’t Lowell. Fewer people in Albany came to hockey games than they did the previous season, and that should be their number one concern. They should absolutely “worry about the people that aren’t (there)”.
By the end of the season, they finally wised up and listened to the fans. Instead of incorporating the things that didn’t work in Lowell, they paid attention to the things that had previous success in Albany. And by the end of the season, they were getting 4,000 people to the games despite the fact that they were hopelessly out of the playoff hunt. It’s still well below the league average, but it showed that they’re listening and paying attention. Sort of.
These guys acknowledge that some fans in Albany miss the River Rats and have misgivings about the Devils. Sometimes they’re willing to listen to what the fans have to say, but the thing that struck me as odd is a quote at the end of Dougherty’s article. It’s from Ciceri, relating to the “negative vibes” he’s been getting from disenfranchised Albany hockey fans. He seems to be saying in one breath “listen to them” and also “tune them out”. I don’t get it.
Coming from the automotive trade, I call all of this noise. Roll up the windows, don’t listen to anything, let’s do what we want to do properly and professionally. Get out in the community. We don’t do it for the ink in the newspaper. We do it because that’s the way we should do it.
Getting out in the community needs to start with things like “we want more people coming to every game” instead of “we’re not worried about the people that aren’t here”. It needs to start with aggressive season ticket sales pushes. It needs to start with promotions and ticket giveaways. It’s better to give away a free ticket than to have an empty seat. That person will come back some other time and buy a ticket. The Checkers, for example, had a “free ticket night”. All you had to do was “like” their facebook page, and you could get a free ticket. It was a weeknight game, and the turnout was less than their season average, but it’s things like that that get people in the door for free the first time and as a paying customer the next time.
Charlotte isn’t having the growing pain or the transition difficulties. Right from the drop, they were in good shape. Charlotteans are accustomed to East Coast Hockey League hockey, and they kept the old ECHL name “Checkers”, but the fans warmly embraced the new team. They were tenth in the league this season with an average of 6,300 fans per night. That’s almost 1,000 more than the league average. It helps that they put a good product on the ice, and to be fair, it probably helps that they’ve got a city with a large population. Maybe they got lucky. Maybe their success at the gate is attributable to novelty. Maybe there were a lot of things at play, but I know that it worked. My biggest, if only, complaint about the situation in Charlotte is the concessions. They share an arena with the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, and on most hockey nights, most of the concession stands are closed or running VERY slowly. On some nights, there are only a couple of stands open. I wish that there were more options and more consistency in that department.
The front office types in Albany have said that they’re trying to enhance the fan experience. They’ve introduced some pretty silly “add-ons” for the fans to pay in advance for parking or “all you can eat hot dogs and popcorn” all season long. In Albany, for $1000, you can sit in the lower level end zone all season long, park all season long and eat hot dogs all season long. If you pay in advance. Their ticket prices seem pretty reasonable, but they have a bizarre system of forcing you to commit to three seasons and automatically billing you. Judging from some of the comments I’ve read, the loyal fans aren’t really impressed by these “innovations” and in some cases, they feel like they’re getting a bad deal.
This is what happens in the off season. I end up writing about the Albany Devils of the AHL.
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David Lee is a restaurant manager with an unused degree in political science. He can be found at Carolina Hurricanes games, Scrabble tournaments and indie-rock shows. Sometimes, all in the same day.