The true measure of a fanbase

As sometimes happens, the internet gets all a flutter about something written and everybody takes a stab at it.

Well the resident Avs beat reporter Adrian Dater caused such waves with his VS column about hockey in Nashville. The general gist of it is "The experiment in Nashville failed. Attendance isn't increasing so it's time to move out." As strange as it sounds, this has caused some backlash on the internet.

Nashville blogs were quick to pounce. The Forechecker, one of the best hockey bloggers on the internet, showed why I hold him in high regard by disassembling Dater's piece with logic and a healthy analysis of the Nashville situation. The Preds blog "A View from 111" called Dater Lazy and Stupid, (kind of ironically since he repeatedly called Dater "Adam") . And Ryan Lambert, aka Two Line Pass, humorously points out the hypocrisy of a Denver guy bashing attendance in his bi-weekly Puck Daddy column, since the Avs had attendance issues last season.

I was disappointed in 2-line not because he wasn't right (he was) but what I don't like is how this somehow turned into a Denver vs Nashville thing. The point that seems to be missed is this: Judging the health of a hockey market solely on attendance is like using ± to judge the wroth of a hockey player (And we all know how I feel about ±). In other words Attendance is a truly atrocious barometer for the health of a hockey market.

Back in the old days, before massive corporate sponsorships, luxury boxes, local television contracts, cable television, club seating, "Premium" seating, 30 NHL teams, NHL Center Ice, the internet, marketing deals, officially licensed merchandise, players salaries, and a whole slew of other factors, Attendance was king in measuring the health of a hockey market. And it wasn't a bad metric then because ticket prices were relatively even across the markets, and those prices all allowed the average blue-collar worker to attend plenty of games. It was a pretty simple relationship. Tickets sold = profit, and health.

But that was 20+ years ago, and pretty much everything has changed since then. Players salaries increased, cable television has allowed fans to watch nearly every game from the comfort of their own home, bypassing the need for fans to shell out $100+ to go watch a game, the cost of going to a game skyrocketed, fueld by concessions, parking, and ticket prices. Economies fluctuated playing with fans disposable income. Owners made conscious decisions to go go after more expensive seats rather than jsut sell them all with luxury boxes, club seats and premium seats. More games against less traditional (i.e. smaller fanbase) teams have been added to the schedule. A smaller % of teams makes the playoffs.

All of these factors (and more!) have marginalized attendance as a barometer of fan health to the point that it is often times more misleading than telling. Old media dinosaurs like to use it because that's been the standard for so long, but it's woefully out of date as a metric, like using batting average to judge baseball players.

Dater touches on this, albeit just the surface, when he preemptively defends some of Colorado's struggles with arguments about coming off a crappy team, and looking at CO's old attendance records.

But there's more to Colorado's struggles than just a bad season. Despite what the criminally inadequate Fan Cost Index says, Colorado pays some of the most expensive ticket prices in the league (all lower deck, luxury box and club seats are not factored into the FCI. That means over ½ the Avs tickets (only the upper deck tix) aren't factored into that absurd $40 average ticket price). As a more proper comparison here's the ticket prices for the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, and Colorado Avalanche which look pretty comparable (if not cheaper) than that of the Avs. Avs fans are being asked to pay for #1 Conference seed, and Stanley Cup contender prices for a team that was 15th in the conference last season. Of course fans are going to stay away for those prices.

In Colorado almost all Avalanche games will be on TV in HD. So fans (especially in this economy) might stay home and watch the games on TV. Well local television ratings seem to back up this hypothesis as the Avs were top 10 in local ratings for the US teams last season. So the interest is there, but people are staying away from the arena because it's a bad team, poor economy, and expensive prices. This doesn't make Colorado a bad hockey market.

Colorado is also one of the smallest markets to have 4 professional sports teams. With the Broncos at 5-0, the Rockies (until last night) in the playoffs, and the Nuggets coming off a very successful campaign, expecting the Colorado sports fan to throw down $40**** to support the worst local team is asking a lot. (**** and as I mentioned above that $40 is closer to $75 or $80). Denver is pretty much saturated in terms of sports market, so when one team sturggles that will reflect at the gate. Denver's size means that reflection will be more obvious than in markets like Philly, Chicago and Dallas.

The main thing missing in using attendance numbers is context, and the lack of it makes for some incredibly warped positions on markets. Dater did give some context as to why he thinks Nashville's attendance should be higher, but he clearly left some of the opposing context out of the argument. Dirk Hoag, aka the Forechecker, gave great context behind Nashville's attendance numbers, and I hope I was able to give some behind Colorado's. People don't often rip Detroit's attendance woes because the 25%+ unemployment in MI makes the context pretty obvious. the context across the league used to be, more or less, the same so attendance was ok to use as an indicator. But the league, the leagues finances and the fanbase, have gotten so complex that attendance from one city to another are nearly incomparable. The context is change, and it's about time we acted accordingly when discussing markets.

4 comments:

  1. The NHL is actually a gate revenue driven league, say what you want about high ticket prices keeping people away (and I don't doubt that's what's happening in CO) it's not good for a franchise.

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  2. Yeah, but I haven't seen any data from city to city. I can't imagine that the Rangers (MSG) Leafs, and even Avs (Alt) aren't less dependent on gate revenues than some of the smaller (therefore cheaper) teams.

    I would agree that it is bad for business, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's an awful fan base.

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  3. Right but the NHL is a business. Teams don't move away from cities because the fans didn't cheer loudly enough or because little kids didn't love their favorite players enough.

    Teams move because they can make more money elsewhere.

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  4. Agree, but a team that loses all the time isn't going to make money anywhere.

    Well, other than the obvious.

    The fact is that Kroenke is still making money on the Avs 9 years out of 10. He'll probably turn a profit again this year. Avs fans still buy gear and watch games on TV, only during an once-in-a-lifetime economic catastrophe combined with strong local competition and an overpaid underachieving roster did the Avs lose money and fans stay away.

    I think Colorado's a viable market.

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