September 22, 2009
Read too much into preseason attendance figures for U.S. markets at your own peril.
Sure, the Phoenix Coyotes drew flies to their first preseason game; one that wasn't marketed by a team still broiling in bankruptcy hell. (Another emergency hearing on Wednesday!) That game was on a Tuesday; attendance (such as it was) tripled for a Friday night game.
What does that tell us? Nothing, other than fans have more free time, and income to dispose via meaningless hockey games, when they can sleep in the next morning.
Yet when it comes to Kansas City, attendance for what is a glorified practice with a cover price becomes a bellwether for the market's NHL viability. Last year's exhibition game at Sprint Center between a team nobody cared about (the Los Angeles Kings) and a geographically appealing franchise (the St. Louis Blues) drew fewer than organizers expected on a Monday night: 11,603.
According to Kansas City Star, there will be around 10,000 fans watching the Kings (again) and the New York Islanders tonight, with John Tavares(notes) (hilariously called "the next Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby(notes) rolled into one" by the Star) not playing.
Look, this isn't to say that general attendance isn't important in a beauty pageant sense: A sellout in Sprint Center tonight would certainly have opened up some important eyes about the Kansas City market at a time when teams are looking very portable. But last season's game had some important "beyond the box score" details, including all premium ($150) seats selling out. Sprint Center currently has all of its suites sold without a professional sports tenant. Ask the Nashville Predators how important culling local corporate support is for a market.
But the box score will still read "10,000"; and that attendance and lack of fan fervor in Kansas City will reverberate on Long Island, where the Islanders' future could be determined at a hearing today.
From the KC Star:
Tonight's game will be played amid a backdrop of what could be a seminal day in Islanders history. A daylong hearing, starting at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 9 tonight will be conducted by the Town of Hempstead, where a seven-member board will hear discussion on whether to approve zoning for the massive, $3.8 billion Lighthouse Project proposed by Islanders owner Charles Wang. The 150-acre sports, retail and entertainment project includes a renovated Nassau Coliseum.
Wang has gone on record as saying if he doesn't have approval of the project by Oct. 3, when the 2009-10 NHL regular season begins, he will "explore all other options" that could include relocating the franchise.
Wang's at today's hearing at Hofstra University, which is being live-blogged by Newsday and by Chris Botta on NYI Point Blank with the sort of minute detail we've come to love in the Coyotes hearings.
Botta said a video with testimonials supporting the Islanders from Mike Bossy, Boomer Esiason and Gary Bettman has already played, and writes this about the KC game in relation to Wang's veiled threat to relocate there:
The game tonight in Kansas City - no matter how it may be spun - is now a non-event. I've heard from reliable sources that KC has comp tickets flying all over the joint and yet the crowd will still be far under capacity. Yes, John Tavares may be held to play in the Islanders' one preseason home game - Wednesday night at the Coliseum. Still, if the Kansas City game was perceived as a difference-maker, Tavares would be playing.
Indeed, although it may have been a moot point if this game had 16,000 fans on a Friday or Saturday night.
The NHL-to-KC issue is being debated on two rather interesting hockey blogs: The NHL in Kansas City, which writes in its game preview that "KC fans understand the Islanders are not on the brink of moving here, and that we're being used as a bargaining ploy again"; and PucKChaser, which has an outstanding post today that deals with hockey's potential in the market and what's best for the Sprint Center. One of the key conclusions:
The AHL is the best product for Sprint Center. The Blades proved that Kansas City enjoys AAA level hockey. Marketed and priced correctly, an AHL team could bring 9,000+ fans downtown on a weekend and 6,000+ fans on a weeknight. Perhaps that isn't enough for [arena owner] AEG. I wonder if it is enough for the downtown businesses who seem awfully slow on weeknights when there is no event at Sprint Center.
There are also issues regarding ownership and market size, as PucKChaser believes a KC team wouldn't draw better than "medium-sized markets like Columbus, Raleigh or Nashville."
Huh. Maybe it'll be Southern Ontario and Seattle/Vegas for the next expansion instead. Unless Gary moves a chess piece before then.