With the WHL playoffs starting up, we thought it would be fun to look at regular season attendance numbers across the entire league. The last four seasons have been anything but normal, which makes evaluating attendance a challenge. Traditionally, March tends to have the highest attendance of the season, so even when COVID shuttered the league in early March, 2020, it had a material impact on attendance figures for the 2019-20 season.
WHL league-wide attendance
Here is a look at the average attendance across the WHL since the 2010-11 season.
As you can see, league-wide attendance has still not fully recovered to 2019-20 season numbers, but it is nice to see the increase of 18 percent from 2021-22. During the 2021-22 season, hockey teams were still challenged with COVID-19 restrictions and trepidation from fans to be part of large gatherings. This explains the low numbers for that season.
Team by team changes
As I mentioned above, analyzing attendance over the last four seasons is challenging. Below are two charts, one showing the percentage change since last season, and the second showing the change from 2019-20, which was the last mostly normal season for a comparable.
It’s nice to see Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and Tri-City up over 30 percent compared to last season, with Everett being the only US Division team with an increase of only 10 percent compared to last season. What’s even more encouraging is seeing Everett up 2 percent from the 2019-20 season, which means they are exceeding pre-COVID numbers. Meanwhile, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Portland Winterhawks have had a decrease in average attendance of -8 percent and -19 percent respectfully, compared with the last “normal” season.
WHL US Division
When rumors of Seattle possibly getting an NHL team started to surface, there was a lot of concern that the arrival of a new franchise could lead to the demise of WHL hockey in the Puget Sound. Our stance was always that it would benefit the junior teams in the area over time, because of more participation and interest of sports fans that would otherwise not be exposed to hockey. While it is too early to say whether local WHL teams have benefitted from the Kraken, we do not believe it has hurt the local junior teams. COVID aside, all US Division teams seem to be very close to pre-Kraken attendance numbers.
Note that Everett, Portland, and Spokane have much bigger arenas than Seattle and Tri-City, so comparing them to each other is not perfect.
Connor Bedard’s impact on WHL attendance
The Western Hockey League had something else going for it this season, Connor Bedard. In case you did not know, Bedard has been widely regarded as a generational talent that will most likely go first overall in the NHL Entry Draft this summer. He has been playing for the Regina Pats and has been an attraction all season when the Pats hit the road.
It is incredible to see what an impact one player can have on attendance. We saw a similar impact when Connor McDavid was playing for the Erie Otters his final year in the OHL.
Here is the breakdown of the Bedard impact by team:
Evaluating WHL attendance numbers remains an imperfect analysis. Ticket prices, arena capacity, and strength of the team all impact the figures in various ways, but directionally, we feel it is still a fair way to get an idea of the overall health of the league and individual teams.
WHL playoffs start Friday, so if you are lucky enough to live near a team that made the playoffs, go check out a game. It has and will continue to remain one of the best values to watch elite-level hockey.
If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask.