Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Canadian Confucius says, playoffs start, attendance goes down.

It's commonplace enough to warrant comment: Does it seem odd that some junior hockey teams have attendance go down when the playoffs begin?

Out west, the Kelowna Rockets, who have had 174 regular-season sellouts in a row at Prospera Place, were only at about 75% last weekend, according to Regan's Rant. In one of our previous iterations in Halifax, it was general knowledge that the QMJHL's Mooseheads, who'd had some first-round flops, usually saw scores of empty seats in the opening round. They only got sellouts if they made the second.

(Update: The Chilliwack Progress noted Tuesday: "ticket sales in Chilliwack decreased approximately 13 per cent, one of the bigger dips in the (WHL). But almost everyone saw a drop, including the Vancouver Giants, who went 57-10-2-3 on the ice, but dipped around eight per cent at the gate.")

It's as much a question for the fans as it is for the teams. In the major pro leagues, demand increases when the playoffs begin. There is buzz. The playoffs start in junior and people start to tune out a bit; any and all explanations are welcome.

Once the weather warms up and the snow melts, the casual fans, the parents who might not care tremendously but will take their kids to the rink on a Sunday afternoon, scatter. Oftentimes their children are finishing their own minor hockey seasons, or beginning springtime activities.

It would be great to ask a couple OHL mavens if they just accept the reality that they're going to lose some of their fringier fans once they get past mid-March, especially if their ticketing strategy is anything like the Ottawa 67's. The Soixante-Septs' way of addressing the challenge of playing in a rink which is oversized for the OHL is to distribute a lot of tickets through group sales and vouchers handed out by their corporate partners to fill up a 9,500-seat building.

It is a great approach in the regular season (and, full disclosure, yours truly attended about a half-dozen games for free using vouchers). However, once the playoffs start and fans have to pay full freight, the 67's end up announcing attendance figures like 4,619 and 4,221, as they did last weekend vs. the Niagara IceDogs. In the press box prior to yesterday's doubleheader — the game they actually played and the one described by some fat, dumb and bald guy in the Ottawa Sun — a couple out-of-towners were wondering if the crowd was politely late. The rink was nearly empty at ten minutes to two. One would hope that the 67's made a nice profit off their 34 regular-season dates and a run to the second or third round of the playoffs

The recession isn't a catch-all explanation. It's quite possible people are just smart and realize that, as in the OHL's case, having 16 of 20 teams make the playoffs means the first round is next to meaningless. Maybe everyone's waiting for Round 2, but if they are, it's a lost opportunity for the leagues to whip up interest before the Stanley Cup playoffs push everything else out to the fringe.

Playoff Crowd Numbers (Regan's Rant)


Dennis Prouse said...

Neate, I think you hit all the salient points here - the 67s work diligently to fill the seats with discounts and group sales over the course of the regular season, but come playoff time the training wheels get taken away. Your final bullet, though, the one about 16 teams out of 20 making the playoffs, merits the most attention.

The fact that the OHL plays 600-odd games over six months to eliminate four teams is a joke. As a result, the first round of the playoffs takes on the look and feel of a preliminary round. Who gets excited about the preliminary round of anything? No one. The fans aren't stupid -- they know the real playoffs begin next round.

This is not unique to the OHL. Back in the NHL's 21 team days, you had some absolutely brutal teams making the 16 team playoffs. 60 point teams were qualifying, and then getting absolutely hammered first round. Back then, the first round of the NHL playoffs was also kind of blah. Now that there are 30 teams, however, and only 16 make it, the first round again means something. The matchups are fierce, and the hockey is terrific.

The CFL suffers with a bit of this in its semi-finals. 6 out of 8 teams are making the post season, which guarantees that at least one of the semi-finalists is going to be a bad team. Who wants to pay their hard earned money to see a team that has no business being in the post season?

Moral of the story -- don't treat your customers like fools. They aren't stupid. If you are going to call it playoff hockey, then make it playoff hockey. Only have eight teams qualify for the playoffs, and let the kids go to camp in September instead of the middle of the freaking summer. (The Q has exhibition games in August, if you can believe it.)

sager said...

Believe it or not, the first NHL game I attended was a playoff game, April 9, 1986, Blackhawks-Leafs at the Gardens.

It used to be commonplace in those days. The season-ticket holders, having already watched 40 games of bad Ballard-era Leafs hockey, would exercise their right of first refusal on playoff tickets. Scalpers and blue-collar fans would swoop in and snap them up ... but as a kid, I remember no matter what, you were excited for the playoffs to come, even with 70-point teams getting in.

Anyway, maybe the thinking in hockey has to change. The NHL, due to the 1990s expansion, has it right. In the NCAA, it's pretty tough to get into the tournament (16 teams).

Like you say, fans aren't fooled, although Sudbury had 4,645 out on Sunday (granted, they'll be lucky to get past the first round vs. the Bellevillians).

John Edwards said...

The idea that nobody goes to the first round of the playoffs has been around for at least 15 years.

In my Central League days back in the mid-90s, we would get regular-season crowds during the quarterfinals, and it wasn't until midway through the semis that they start to build.

I don't think the bandwagon starts until teams win a playoff series now. Combine that with the fact that promotions and heavy-duty group sales stop, that means that the first round is often a tough sell, especially with the four-round death march that is the OHL and QMJHL playoffs.