Canadian NHL markets are seeing slump in early-season attendance

Sporting News

The Hockey News' Ken Campbell recently posted a tweet indicating four of the five Canadian teams playing at home last Tuesday — Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens — failed to sell out. He also pointed out the Ottawa Senators had huge attendance issues this season thus far.

Campbell observed it isn't good for the NHL when Canadian teams struggle at the gate. Those seven franchises are believed to generate around 35 percent of league revenue each season.

Unlike other major North American sports leagues, the NHL remains largely a gate-driven league. Even with the current disparity in value between the Canadian and American dollar, Canadians' passion for the sport generates a significant chunk of hockey-related revenue. Any notable decline in attendance among those seven teams can be a cause for concern.

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In a subsequent article, Campbell cited a Canadian sports market guru suggesting several factors, such as other emerging forms of entertainment or technology for watching games at home, could be behind the early attendance dip.

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Campbell doubted the high cost of attending games might be reaching a tipping point, citing each team charges whatever its market can bear. Nevertheless, the Winnipeg Sun's Paul Friesen last week reported most Jets fans he spoke to cited the ballooning prices as their main complaint.

On-ice performance could also be a reason behind the slumping gate. A Canadian team hasn't reached the Stanley Cup Final since the Canucks in 2011. Only three clubs since then — the 2013-14 Canadiens, the 2016-17 Senators and the 2017-18 Jets — advanced to a conference final.

Three Canadian teams reached the playoffs last season and none advanced beyond the opening round. The season prior, only two qualified. In 2015-16, all seven were outside the postseason picture.

The Canadiens and Canucks play in two of Canada's biggest markets but both clubs have struggled in recent years. Montreal missed the postseason in three of the past four seasons while rebuilding Vancouver's last playoff appearance came in 2015.

In Alberta, the Flames and Edmonton Oilers have had their share of performance issues. Calgary missed the postseason in three of the last five seasons; they topped the Western Conference in 2018-19 but were quickly dispatched from the first round by the Colorado Avalanche. The Oilers, meanwhile, qualified for the playoffs just once in the previous 13 seasons.

Other factors could also come into play for certain markets. Alberta's struggling oil industry could account for the recent attendance downturn for the Flames and Oilers. Senators fans, meanwhile, have wearied of irascible owner Eugene Melnyk's ham-handed ways. Sportsnet's Wayne Scanlan recently reported the Senators' ranked 30 out of the NHL's 31 teams in home attendance following their first four games.

Only the Toronto Maple Leafs have regularly sold out their arena in the early going. Since moving into their current location in 1999, Toronto fans supported the Leafs through thick and thin. They continue selling out, despite the high cost of attending a Leafs game being beyond the reach of traditional hockey fans. Over 90 percent of Scotiabank Arena's seats belong to season-ticket holders, with many of those held by corporations.

The early attendance decline could be merely a blip in an otherwise long schedule. It could also be the start of a worrying trend.

If those numbers remain down over the course of the season, it will have an effect on hockey-related revenue. With the salary cap tied to revenue, it'll also affect how much money the 31 teams will have available to invest in their rosters for 2020-21. The ramifications could also affect the current collective bargaining negotiations between the league and the players.

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