With the lockout of last season, it was common to see fans exclaiming their displeasure through social media outlets. ‘I will never buy merchandise again’, ‘I will never watch a game again’ and the oh-so-popular ‘I hate Bettman’.
Whether or not those claims ever held any validity up to this point is difficult to say. However, these past Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks were the most watched on record, averaging roughly 1.4 million viewers throughout the NHL playoffs. Does this mean that the NHL has more fans than it did before? Maybe, maybe not.
It’s important to realize that the two teams this year were very different then last year. When you compare the fan bases of two Original Six teams to a west coast team and a team with a lack of finances, the winner is quite clear. Chances are, you would be able to get the casual fans to watch the Bruins and the Blackhawks, purely because of who the teams are. Personally, I enjoyed the Los Angeles Kings – New Jersey Devils finals more than this year’s. Both teams had more to prove, but that’s for another day.
Fans come and go, and if you’ve seen the Dallas Stars Facebook page, you’d understand what I mean when I mention fair weather fans. Fans are the backbone behind successful franchises, and nowadays a fans loyalty can be assessed based on more then just attendance at a game, through metrics like merchandise purchasing and at-home viewership. Nothing is better then having a full house of fans cheering on their home team as loud as they possibly can though.
It’s not secret that this has been a problem for the Dallas Stars in the past few seasons; however, this year was much better then previous years, and the organization was able to boast the most increase in average fan attendance per game in the NHL.
To put it simply, the NHL and team owners want those butts in those seats. This is the bottom line for every single team.
Let’s look at the Florida Panthers. They’re having a huge problem getting fans inside their home barn, even with their prices as low as $7 a seat. Earlier in June, the Panthers announced a season ticket deal that included a free jersey, free parking and four free concerts at the BB&T Center. This was for $7 a game.
Seven multiplied by 44 is $308.
Roughly $300 for 44 home games, a free jersey (which could easily cost $200), free parking and four concerts. Seriously. Do you know how much a single ticket is at a regular season game in Toronto? A good seat in the lower bowl could easily cost more than that.
This brings me to my next point – the Toronto Maple Leafs are quite different fan-wise when compared to the Florida Panthers. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a massive, massive, massive following. Living in Toronto and being a Leafs fan, it’s quite apparent that their following is one of the most hardcore in the league, and the Leafs ownership knows this. That’s why they don’t have to worry about lowering the prices, or season-ticket sales, or put forward too much appreciation for their fans.
However, the Leafs often have issues with fans who sit in the first 10 or so rows leaving during the third period or earlier. That’s because the hardcore fans are sitting elsewhere. You can see this if you tune into a home game during the third period and start watching seats become emptier. To management, it doesn’t matter because those seats have already been paid for. But to the fans sitting in the upper bowl, it’s a real slap in the face.
When I went to Dallas earlier in the year, I was able to catch a Stars game. I went to the front of the arena where they had a band playing, raffle draws, a road hockey set up for children, and a jumping castle. This is a team that wants fans in their barn night after night and is showing that they really appreciate fans.
I can’t imagine any member of the Leafs ownership can truly appreciate fans like other teams do. They sell out night after night, and only really have to worry about what happens on the ice. As opposed to teams like the Panthers, or the Islanders, who have seen so much success and history simply go unnoticed for the past few seasons because of poor team management and unfortunate finances.
That brings me to my next point – it’s not all up to ownership for fans to come out and watch a few games. It’s up to the players themselves. While hardcore fans will love their team through thick and thin, some fans will give up on teams that don’t perform well. Giving exception to the Maple Leafs or the Flyers, this is a big problem for quite a few organizations.
The New York Islanders had an awesome season this past year, and even gave the Penguins a run for their money during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fans notice this, and they’re going to want to come out and watch more games after seeing the success of a young Islanders team. Of course, the Islanders have other issues to worry about too, but having a good team really helps.
The difference between teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Toronto Maple Leafs is that the Blue Jackets will do anything to get fans to watch games, and the Leafs can literally shut off their Twitter account and not worry about anything. Does this mean that the Blue Jackets are desperate, and the Leafs simply have it all figured out?
I would argue otherwise. See, appreciating your fans isn’t just a time period during which an organization is pursuing an increased fan base. It’s a job. A full time, 365 days a year, yearly, for the duration of a teams existence kind of job. That is fan appreciation. Talking to your fans through social media outlets, giving away merchandise, meet-and-greets with players, giving the fans what they want, and deserve; that’s what makes people want to come back. NHL fans are the most patient in any league. Dealing with lockouts is not fun, but we still come back, night after night, staying up late to watch our favourite team win or lose, in regulation, overtime or shootout.
The Blue Jackets understand this, and the Leafs probably don’t. They don’t need to, and while this doesn’t have any effect on their ticket sales, it has an effect on their fans. Leafs games have become remarkably expensive in recent years, and buying a ticket for face-value may be out of the question for all types of fans. That doesn’t matter though, because they’ll still sell out.
I suppose its an economic principle, supply-and-demand, know your product, sell for what it should sell for. I get it, totally different markets, totally different prices. Okay, I can understand that.
But when one team tries to get fans to have fun before the game like the Stars do, and the other just doesn’t simply because they don’t need to, it just looks bad.
At the end of the day, fans are what drives this league forward. And while appreciating the fans should be the top-priority for every single team in the NHL, it doesn’t always seem like it is.
I don’t want to end this on a negative note. The Stars have an exceptionally bright future, and have all the tools to create a winning and popular team that will shine brightly in the NHL for years to come.