As the fourth of the big four American professional sports, the National Hockey League should be enjoying a surge of good publicity just because its season and its future isn’t clouded by the type of labor strife that appears on the horizon for the National Basketball Association and National Football League.
The NHL, though, has issues of its own thanks to sagging ticket sales in several markets. Over the last eight days, three teams have played to their sparsest crowds ever.
On Wednesday, October 20, the host Atlanta Thrashers fell to the Buffalo Sabres, 4-1, in front of 8,820 at Phillips Arena. The same night, the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Anaheim Ducks, 3-1, in front of 9,802 at Columbus’ Nationwide Arena. And on Thursday, October 21, the Phoenix Coyotes drew just 6,706 fans to Jobing.com Arena, where they beat the Los Angeles Kings, 4-2.
The record-setting games were the second home contest of the season for all three franchises, each of which drew bigger crowds to their next home game but didn’t come close to the numbers the teams enjoyed in their openers.
The Thrashers drew 15,596 in the season opener against the Washington Capitals Friday, October 8 and 9,138 against the Tampa Bay Lightning Friday, October 22. The Blue Jackets played in front of 18,305 fans — less than 200 shy of a sellout — against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks Monday, October 15 and 10,784 against the Calgary Flames Monday, October 22. And the Coyotes drew a sellout crowd of 17,125 for their opener against the Detroit Red Wings Saturday, October 16 and 8,189 against the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday, October 23.
Overall, eight of the 29 teams that have played at least two home games are playing to less than 80 percent capacity and four — the Thrashers, Blue Jackets and Coyotes as well as the New York Islanders — are playing to less than 75 percent capacity. Last year, only six teams failed to reach the 80 percent capacity mark and only two teams (the Thrashers and Coyotes) failed to reach the 75 percent plateau.
The top of the NHL is faring quite well at the gate: Like last year, 11 teams are playing to 100 percent or more of capacity and 19 are playing to at least 90 percent capacity.
But the resell market is still lagging, according to TicketCity.com owner Randy Cohen, who told TicketNews that NHL sales are down across the board “…probably about 30 percent” for a variety of reasons, including the economy, competition from the Major League Baseball playoffs and the National Football League regular season and the lack of a must-see team or player.
“At the end of the day it’s still early in the season — bottom line is when baseball ends and then football gets to the tail end, people really jump on the basketball and hockey bandwagons,” Cohen said. “There’s no big driving force in the NHL — there’s not a big LeBron James-type person driving things that everybody wants to see.”
In addition, in a league in which most revenue comes from gate receipts — the New York Post reported Sunday, October 24 that 92 percent of revenue comes from local sources — the continued struggles of teams such as the Thrashers, Blue Jackets, Coyotes and Islanders is cause for concern, especially given the long-standing troubles of each market.
The Thrashers are the second NHL team to call Atlanta home, which lost the Flames to Calgary after eight years in 1980. The Blue Jackets are the only big four team in Columbus, where the main attraction is Ohio State football. The Coyotes are owned by the NHL after filing for bankruptcy in May 2009 and are considered the franchise most likely to relocate. And the Islanders, in addition to running a distant third to the Rangers and New Jersey Devils in the metro New York area, play in ancient Nassau Coliseum and will likely move if they cannot get a new arena built.
“It’s scary for those teams,” Cohen said. “They are definitely not breaking even, that’s for sure…I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these teams really start to paper the venues [with free tickets].”