Forgetting teams with unusual circumstances (The second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, as an example, who pre-sold five seasons worth of seats as a precursor to bringing an NHL team back to Winnipeg) and those who have recent Stanley Cup Championships (Boston, Chicago and LA) the NHL attendance statistics tell an interesting story.
Two things become readily apparent in perusing the numbers.
Some teams sell out all the time, every game, every season, and have done so for at least the past 13 years. Attendance does not seem to be performance based
Some teams sell out only when they are doing well and each season's attendance records mirrors their performance of the last season.
The Original Six, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and New York (Rangers) are not immune. In 2006-2007, as an example, both Boston and Chicago were well under 90% (Boston at 84% and Chicago at an astounding 62%) and in 2007-2008 Detroit fell to 90%. In fact, the New York Rangers are the only American Original Six team who falls into category one of the short list above - they always sell out.
The Canadian teams, Original Six and expansion era additions, always sell out. Every year without exception. It should be noted that no statistics exist for the old Jets or the Nordique and they have been left out of the analysis entirely. Additionally, stats are reported for the Jets when they were still the Thrashers and are suspect, at best.
All this is made more interesting when you consider that the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only hockey franchise which cracked the Forbe's top fifty sports franchises (in terms of net worth) list with an estimated worth of $1 billion. The only other two that were worth mentioning? The New York Rangers at $750 million and the Montreal Canadians at $575 million. All original six and all sold out all the time. And none of them, not a one, could be considered top performers in the last decade ... longer for the Maple Leafs.
Perhaps the issue of performance based attendance it is most apparent in the case of the Hawks and Pens - two teams whose struggles at the gate nearly cost their cities their NHL franchises and who each saw a resurgence of their financial stability when they began to be perennial contenders.
Get On The Bandwagon
There is a term in sports fandom, "bandwagoner", which indicates that a fan is fair weather - has become a fan because the team has become a winning team. They call them "red hats" in Boston. But whatever they are called, it is a derisive term intended to insult someone and separate them from the "real" fans which, in context, one takes to mean fans who have been fans through thick and thin, win or lose.
Self described "real" fans really hate "bandwagoners". It takes on a comedic tone on most hockey related forums and discussion boards. It is bandied about much like an ad hominen and is used to justify dismissing any opinion that "bandwagon" fan might have as being invalid. Thus, one fan turns on another, even if they are both fans of the same team. It's a strange form of possessiveness and jealousy which boggles my mind.
And it doesn't add up, does it?
Without the "bandwagoners" Chicago and Pittsburgh might well be the Seattle Blackhawks and the Kansas City Penguins. Shouldn't the "real" fans be welcoming them with open arms? If not kissing the ground they walk on then, at least, refraining from pissing on it? And where were those "real" fans in the years their teams were struggling at the gate? There's a head scratcher, eh?
Paying for Your Seat on the Bandwagon Bus
If enough "bandwagoners" develop a bona fide love of the game, whatever team they cheer for is guaranteed stability. Yes, "real" fans, you should treat the bandwagoners respectfully and encourage their love of hockey. For all but the seven Canadian teams and the one American team need those bandwagoners like a body needs air.
Why? Because they build momentum, encourage other people to be fans and expose the game to a wider audience. All good things. But mostly, because they spend money and the people they bring with them spend money. And while moral support for the team certainly counts, sitting in front of the television in an armchair in your tattered numbered jersey covered with your childhood team logo blanket isn't enough. Until the jersey gets tangled in the washer or the dog pees on the blanket, you won't buy new ones: that money you spent is already long gone.
Renewable income is what the team needs. Quite literally, that's money they take to the bank, convert to borrowing power and use again the next day. And if a fan can't go to the games, if they can't afford to or don't live close enough, then they can still buy a jersey or a t-shirt, subscribe to a newsletter, pick up a poster or a lampshade or a soft, wooly blanket for their kid. And they will, those rascally bandwagoners. They will want to celebrate their new-found passion for the game or the team. And they're helping to keep your game and maybe even your team in the black. Before bashing a bandwagoner, every "real" fan needs to ask themselves when was the last time they actually did something tangible to support their team?
Conventional wisdom and common sense tell us that the gate, the money earned from ticket sales and all the ancillary spending (food, merchandise, 50/50 tickets), is the very lifeblood of a team's financial stability. One of the prevailing questions about the Coyotes is whether or not their arena deal contains enough control over the venue and its income to ensure the team makes enough money from it or, at least, from their own use of it. Let's all hope, then, that the new deal brings some bandwagoners with it and that they buy tickets and jerseys and lampshades.
A bandwagon fan, if you will, is the end product, the successful result, the hoped for achievement of the NHL's and the individual team's primary agenda. Let's call that agenda "asses in seats". They do it in a variety of ways, from signing big name players to resigning beloved players (Captaincy stability seems to be important also) to television deals to websites to ice girls to marketing programs to community involvement. It's all about asses in seats. Every ass in a seat is as "real" to them as the next one. Winning a cup is the best temporary method yet discovered but, as the Canadian teams prove, it's not the only method to get those asses where they want them and it's not a permanent one.
A love of the game itself seems to be the only one that sticks through thick and thin. Maybe more than anything else. Maybe even more than a Stanley Cup. A championship is transitory - a love of the game is eternal.
Bandwagoners stand as good a chance as anyone of falling in love with the game and becoming lifelong fans. Why kick them to the curb? They are, after all, putting their money where their mouth is. Who could ask for more?
Since few Canadian teams boast a "perennial contender" status in the last decade - only Vancouver comes to mind - you tend not to hear much talk amongst fans of Canadian teams about "bandwagoners" as the implied meaning of the term would require a winning team. Not many Canadian teams qualify. I fully expect the same thing would happen if, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup.
Which, predictably, leads many fans of American teams to tease, belittle and poke fun at Canadian team fans. You hear things like "they shouldn't even let Canadian teams in the NHL" and other such utter nonsense. Gary Bettman would die an apoplectic death if the Canadian teams decided to make their own league and compete against the NHL. It would be the utter ruin of American hockey.
Please bear in mind, I am not making a Canadian versus American distinction in terms of citizenship. I am making one in terms of hockey fandom. Many Americans are fans of Canadian teams and many Canadians are fans of American teams. I am a Canadian, as an example, who is a fan of an American team. There is no intended correlation between an "American" and a "Canadian", per se.
If a "hockey town" is one where hockey will succeed, whether the teams wins or loses, then there are very few Hockey Towns in the NHL's list of franchise towns.
The bottom line appears to be that if you live in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary Edmonton, Vancouver or New York (with honorable mentions to Minnesota and Philadelphia who *almost* qualify), you can say you live in a hockey town. If you live anywhere else you really can't. You can say you live in a town that likes hockey a lot and LOVES winning hockey. But you can't call your town a Hockey Town, not even if you're from Detroit.
Maybe, just maybe, if the "real" fans accepted, respected and welcomed the bandwagoners more than they do, we'd have more "real" Hockey Towns. Just maybe. In fact, maybe the very definition of a hockey town is one where the bandwagoners become loyalists.
Everyone Was Once a Bandwagoner
Everyone. Whether you hopped on the bandwagon of your parents or siblings and began to like the team for which they cheered, or whether you cheer for the team of your home town or the place in which you now live, or you started watching hockey when Gretzky or Lemieux or Crosby came to the game ... you started as a bandwagoner. Some thing or other got you interested in hockey and brought you into the fold.
I love hockey because everyone else in my family loves hockey and I remember Hockey Night in Canada with Howie Meeker as fondly as I remember The Wonderful World of Disney. My father helped me up into the bandwagon and the game kept me holding tightly onto the rails.
So, I suppose I can say I am a proud bandwagoner ... since the mid sixties when I got my first pair of used hockey skates, a cut off stick and a beat up practice jersey with a Habs logo half peeled off , all scrounged from some cousin or another who had outgrown them.
Something or someone brought every fan of the game to the game. Some Stanley Cup victory or high profile draft choice or family tradition or geographic coincidence. Unless you were born with a team logo shaped birthmark chances are you're on the bandwagon too, you've just been on it longer.
2001-2013 Attendance Stats used were published by the NHL. Forbes information was obtained from the Forbes website.