Current MBA/J.D. student and avid reader of SportsAgentBlog.com, Jared March, decided to write a guest contribution after Kenji’s Love On Ice post and its controversial comments:
This year, the NHL enjoyed its most successful season compared to any other year in the past decade. In America. Attendance figures represents the league’s ability to actually get people off of their couches and pay to watch their favourite (favorite for those of you south of the border, no not Mexico, I’m writing this from Canada) stars pay. It represents a true measure of the league’s success with its more devout fan-base. In 2006, the NHL enjoyed its highest attendance of the decade, attracting 20,854,299 spectators. Those crazy canucks were just so happy to have their sport back. Turns out they were even happier in 2007, drawing an additional 2989 fans; the Rangers had an Elliot Spitzer (before he was client #9) bobble head day which possibly accounted for the splurge (they actually did not have this bobble head day but, even if they did, it would only rank 7th on MSG’s list of most embarrassing moments of 2007).
Not even Stephon Marbury, the Nostradamus of sports (http://youtube.com/watch?v=rYY338_JgvI), could have predicted what would happen in 2008. 21,289,579 fans decided to go watch the NHL, 432,291 more than the year before. 2008 represented an increase in fan attendance of over 7% from 2004, the year before the NHL went on strike.
All kidding aside, it wasn’t Canada alone that made the difference. Attendance in American cities for hockey games has jumped from 15,390,948 the year before the NHL strike, to 16,563,290 during the 2007-2008 season, the most this decade. A disproportionate representation of the increase in fans since the strike has come from the country that brought us the manifest destiny (that would be the United States of America for anyone confused). While attendance jumped 7.2% across the league from the year before the strike until this year, attendance increase in America over that same time span represents a gain of 7.6%.
So is there any legitimacy to saying that the NHL’s success is because of Canada? Certainly. The popularity of hockey amongst Canadians is obviously much stronger than it is within America. Many children do not remember learning to skate in Canada because it happened so soon after they learned to walk. That said, the NHL’s success is also because of the popularity of hockey within the United States of America. For the entire decade, 77-79% of attendance league-wide has occurred in cities across America. While 80% of the teams are located in America, the importance of fan attendance in America is unquestionable for the success of the league.
Still the NHL is the minors, right? Well, do not be surprised if the NHL surpasses the NBA in fan attendance next year. The two leagues are a good measuring stick for each other as they have the same amount of teams, play the same amount of games during the regular season and compete at the same time. In the 2007-2008 season, the NBA attracted a grand total of 105,178 more fans than the NHL during the regular season. What is more telling is the NBA experienced a significant decline in fan attendance from the 2006-2007 season, while the NHL experienced a boom. The NBA had more than 413,000 fewer fans attend during the 2007-2008 season than the 2006-2007 season.
So what has happened? The NHL deserves no credit for their television deal with Versus. Versus is available in far fewer homes than ESPN and it dropped coverage in Anaheim, while the Ducks were still playing, in the Stanley Cup Final. The Masters is never going to be on the Golf channel and the Stanley Cup should never be on Versus. The Outdoor Classic worked out great even if the ice was choppy. Sidney Crosby coming in 1-1 with the goalie to win the game is the best situation that the NHL could have hoped for. However, if they keep doing winter classics, they might have to drop the classic from the game. The fact it was something unique is what made viewer’s turn in, not the fact that it was outside. While a game at Yankee Stadium, and the last sporting event in the venue, will also be a great idea, going to the well every year will make it dry up. The NHL’s increase in attendance came largely from increased attendance in Washington, Chicago, Buffalo and St. Louis. Young superstars captured the imaginations of fans in Washington and Chicago and were major drivers towards 2007-2008 being a success.
What has gone wrong with the NBA this year? Nothing that a true basketball fan would complain about unless they happen to live in New Jersey, Charlotte, Minnesota, Memphis, Indiana or poor Seattle. The Western Conference made for one of the most entertaining professional regular seasons in sports history. The talent level of about 8-10 teams in the NBA this year is incredible. The MVP race is wide open as is the championship. However, while some teams were so strong, others were so weak. The NHL had 0 teams average attendance below 80% capacity this year whereas the NBA had 6, 2 of those registered average attendance below 70% capacity. The NHL’s hard salary cap has resulted in a more even playing field (or ice) than the NBA’s soft cap. While the hard cap does not make players or agents happy, the parity it helps produce keeps fan-bases interested and offers hope for a quicker turnaround for teams as long as relief is available for teams that manage the cap poorly. If Seattle remains in limbo next year, unable to move but unlikely to stay much longer, look for the NHL to overtake the NBA in total fan attendance. Unfortunately, to find NHL games, you might have to look for Versus.
Statistics derived from data available from ESPN at:
See Attached spreadsheet for statistical analysis: