clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Attendance/market reality check: Which way for the Islanders?

In 1999-00, the Canucks averaged 14,642 fans.

Also struggling at the gate that season were Calgary and Edmonton. The Flames averaged 15,322, the Oilers 15,802, which meant all three Western Canadian teams were outdrawn by Nashville (16,600).

In actual fact, almost every present-day NHL team has struggled to sell tickets at some point, even in so-called hockey cities.

Two Original Six teams, the Blackhawks and Bruins, played to thousands of empty seats before their recent revivals.

It was refreshing to see these friendly reminders from Orland Kurtenblog (via Puck Daddy), a dose of sanity as the rabid anonymous try to turn the Coyotes' bankruptcy into a U.S. vs. Canada thing. People with short memories -- or is it simply lives short on experience? -- so easily forget that there are several "traditional" markets in the league which have had their share of attendance woes over the years. The common denominators are almost always poor management, a poor(ly located?) building, local economics or all of the above.

In hockey, as in life, there are cycles of ups and downs that are -- believe it or not -- not necessarily tied to whether the locals have backyard rinks.

The '90s were a scary time for this history-loving hockey fan, not just because of the Devils' expansion-enabled trap assault on the game. In Western Canada, the storied teams of the '80s (or in Vancouver's case, a team of stories) were in trouble, to the point that a Canadian assistance funding plan was created by that commissioner guy who supposedly hates Canada.

The St. Louis Blues, for whom I've had full-season ticket packages in the past, have gone through enough boom and bust attendance cycles for nine lives, and the busts were always -- in 1977, in 1983, 1996 and 2004 -- related to ownership collapses and/or derelict management. (Hey, people take the "Show-Me State" moniker seriously.)

(On that note, this league has adopted a devil's bargain that puts every team outside of Toronto at risk of wild attendance swings whenever the on-ice product turns sour: By jacking up ticket prices after each non-disastrous season -- to "improve the on-ice product," I assure you -- NHL teams force Joe Average Fan to re-evaluate just how big a portion of his disposable income he reasonably should put toward bad hockey. Whereas once you could see a game in the cheap seats for the price of a couple of movie tickets, now you're talking a month's rent. Are repeated non-playoff seasons worth that? Should the viability of the Phoenix market really be based on whether fans have shown up for that product?)

The Coyotes may have a great-building/bad-location problem by being out in Glendale. If so, that may be untenable. But a decade of strong North Stars teams well-attended in Dallas tells me that a market as big as Phoenix, with that many transplants, can support hockey under the right context. Circumstances may have conspired against the 'Yotes; we'll see. But the "they don't want hockey there" meme is tired and misplaced. It's possible that they just don't want bad hockey there, and a long commute to boot.

The Islanders: 13,773 and Headed ... Up?

On the other side of this nation of impure hockey infidels, some are ready to dismiss the New York Islanders due to 15 years of low attendance, zero playoff series wins, and a series of fraudulent or (of late) wacky owners. Yet the club that packed Nassau Coliseum 25 years ago has suffered from the same old common denominators: a poor, low-revenue building and a series of owners looking to cut corners and/or make a quick buck.

But there is a loyal fanbase that, with the right direction, the right turnaround, and just maybe the right building, is poised to re-emerge. While attendance still hovers around a figure that begins with 13, an attendance spike earlier in this decade -- amid the brief Yashin/Peca revival -- was a sign of what could happen with a Tavares-led dose of hope. The club has actually been quite creative with marketing and ticket packages in recent years to steadily nudge attendance upward despite a weak roster. There is reason to think an on-ice turnaround will help attendance take off.

But ah, the Lighthouse, the Lighthouse. Time is wasting away. With the Town of Hempstead clearly in a stall pattern, as Chris Botta wrote today, this fall "the Islanders owner will have no other choice but to open conversations with other municipalities interested in Long Island’s National Hockey League franchise."

Maybe there is alternative "hope" in Queens, maybe the Atlantic Yards/Brooklyn project will hold promise. Neither would be "Long Island," but if New Jersey could hold the Giants and Jets for so many years, then maybe ...

In the meantime, amid the Lighthouse Limbo, which direction will attendance go? With a Tavares (or alternative) and other developing youngsters in the fold, will Islanders fans keep turning out even with the franchise's future hanging under a veil of uncertainty?

I think they will. Because right now the problem isn't with the club's effort. Islanders ownership is doing -- and has done --  everything it can to keep the team here and develop a sustainable future. Charles Wang, for all his unconventional moves and early hockey missteps, has been remarkably patient in trying to find a way to keep the team in Nassau County (under a miserable lease) and still make it worth owning. Add a young star (or two) to an improving roster under an exciting coach, and that management effort may count for something, even if the Town of Hempstead tries to punt the issue and make the team go away.

The lease expires in 2015. If the club has to move -- perhaps to a different part of the metro area -- it's quite possible it's final seasons at Nassau Coliseum will be the highest attended in years.