When the members of the Arizona Coyotes looked up into the stands during their 7-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night, they could have been forgiven for being a little confused. They would have been excused if they had thought for a moment they were actually playing at home instead of the Canadian Tire Centre, or whatever it is they’re calling the rink in Ottawa this week.
That’s because the game drew an announced crowd of just 11,061. It was a number that was, by some accounts, a generous one. It was also a low-water mark for the arena and it was believed to be the lowest attendance figure recorded for a game in Canada since late in the 1995-96 season, just before the Winnipeg Jets left town.
What does this prove? Well, a cynic might suggest it shows the Coyotes are just as popular on the road as they are at home. But it’s much more troubling than that. Low attendance in Ottawa is not a novel concept. In fact, it is following a trend that has been established over the past couple of seasons. So, 11,061 for a Tuesday night against Arizona is troubling in a Canadian market. But just as troubling was the fact the Senators came almost 1,000 short of a sellout for their season opener, which just happened to be against their most hated rival. Then they came almost 400 short of a sellout for home game No. 2 against the Montreal Canadiens.
Since the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, attendance has been robust in every market but one. Generally speaking, almost every game since then has been sold out in every Canadian market with the exception of the nation’s capital. So we have to wonder whether or not fans in Ottawa have reached their breaking point here. The Senators have what they refer to as a Dynamic Pricing Structure for single game tickets, so it’s fair to assume the games against Toronto and Montreal were probably the most expensive of the season.
There’s a good chance that if there is a breaking point for fans, it has been reached in Ottawa. Ticket prices and an arduous journey out to a suburban arena are usually cited as the two most prominent factors when it comes to the Senators trouble filling the arena. (The resurrected Canadian Football League team, meanwhile, has sold out 25 of its 27 home games so far.) And tickets for hockey games are just like anything else when it comes to a free market economy. In reality, there is absolutely no connection between the fact that Bobby Ryan will make $7.25 million this season and Senators’ ticket prices. The cost of tickets to the consumer is the function of one principle – supply and demand. Hockey tickets cost as much or as little as the market will bear. And in this case, the market has quite obviously sent a message with its feet. And part of the problem then becomes perception. If there is low attendance, then fans who might otherwise feel a need to get their tickets early will realize they can probably get their ducats on the secondary market or by simply going to the box office on game night. So if the weather is bad, traffic is nasty or you’re just not feeling it, you don’t go to the game. And that kills demand.
But Ottawa is not the only market in Canada that seems to be softening. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association claims the World Cup was sold out, but there were swaths of empty seats, right up to Canada’s two-game final against Team Europe. The luxury boxes at the Air Canada Centre were a barren wasteland. The secondary market was flooded with inventory, which drove down the cost to a small fraction of the face value.
And consider that there are reports of soft ticket sales for the World Junior Championship in both Toronto and Montreal. The latter is of particular concern, largely because it was so dismally attended when the event was split between the two cities two years ago. The same fans who haven’t seen their team win a Stanley Cup for a quarter of a century are still not willing to pay top dollar to watch teenagers play for world supremacy. With Canada not playing any games in the preliminary round in Montreal, expect to see enormous swaths of empty seats prior to the medal round.
Canadians love hockey. A lot. But there comes a point where it doesn’t seem reasonable to continue it as an open-my-wallet-and-take-all-my-money unconditional love. The Senators appear to have reached that point. And it should be a cautionary tale for other teams who think occupied seats are a given just because people are watching NHL hockey.