There has been chatter about potential NHL attendance issues across the league early this season. Softness in Winnipeg, Buffalo, and Ottawa has been bantered about across Canadian hockey media outlets, but is it accurate? Is attendance actually a problem in those cities?
It is a little early to start sounding the alarms of potential attendance issues, and depending on how you look at the numbers, they can also be misleading. That said, we will dig into the attendance numbers through all October games to see if there are themes we might want to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Average attendance during the month of October across the league is up 2.3 percent from last season. That is good, but it is not back to the same level for the October games played in the 2019-20 season.
There are a few things to note here:
1) Arizona now plays its games at Mullett Arena with a capacity of 4,600 per game. Back in 2019-20, they played at Desert Diamond Arena (formerly Gila River Arena), and although they were not selling out, they still averaged 12,224 per game. So naturally, the shift to the smaller arena will bring the overall league average down.
2) The NHL is a high-sellout league where several teams sell all their tickets for all their games, so seeing growth from those teams is constrained by their capacity.
3) Since 2019-20, a few arenas have downsized their capacities slightly to clear room for more luxury seating and experiences.
4) The game count per arena can vary and therefore throw off the weight of a certain team’s attendance. i.e., The Chicago Blackhawks played eight home games in October of the 2019-20 season but have only played two October home games during the 2023-24 season. This is important because the Blackhawks play in one of the biggest arenas in the league, and the volume of games is thus not weighted as heavily in 2023-24 as it was in 2019-20.
To avoid some of the limitations and nuances of looking at average attendance, another way to evaluate these figures is to look at the percentage of games that sell out across the league. I consider a game a sellout if attendance is 99 percent of capacity.
Like the average attendance figure, this can be misleading due to the weighting of teams but still a good indicator of league-wide attendance.
Looking at the change season over season you start to get a better read on some teams that might be struggling.
Here are a couple notes about the attendance changes season over season by team.
- New Jersey is getting a pop in attendance after the team took major steps forward last season, including a first-round win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
- Chicago’s attendance increase can be attributed to Connor Bedard joining the team after he was selected first overall in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
- Buffalo has been called out as a team with softness in attendance this season, but they have increased quite a bit off last season’s October attendance numbers.
- Winnipeg’s 19 percent drop is significant considering they did make the playoffs last season. Teams tend to not see a drop in their attendance after making the playoffs in the prior season.
- Arizona, Boston, Dallas, New York Rangers, Seattle, and Tampa Bay have sold out all their games in October over the last two seasons.
It’s not the easiest to read, but here is a game-by-game breakdown of all the teams’ games through October. I will be updating this throughout the season.
Seasonality and day of the week
When media people state variances in attendance, they often compare an impartial season to prior completed seasons. They are not wrong, and I am not implying they are being deceptive. I’m just saying it would be more accurate to look at the seasonality in attendance.
The disrupted three seasons of hockey between 2019-20 and 2021-22 made those unfair comps. There are no major takeaways from this graph other than attendance tends to climb a bit in December, January, and February, with a little pop in the low-volume month of April.
This might not come as a surprise to many of you, but the day of the week a game is played can also impact attendance.
The variances do not seem that significant when looking at the league as a whole, but when you look at a team with some more variability in its attendance, it can be significant.
Here are a few examples.
Attendance vs butts in seats
I specifically use the term attendance because that is what is used in NHL game reports. I am aware these numbers do not reflect actual attendance figures, but until teams and the league start sharing the actual butts in seats attendance numbers, this will have to suffice.
Teams’ on-ice success can be very cyclical, and as a fan, you should expect some low-attendance seasons; there was a time that the Coyotes had higher attendance than Boston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. This is all natural.
I hope you find this info informative, and if you have any specific questions feel free to ask me in the comments section below on twitter.