"The first indications for us as to what next year will look like, and if you're looking for indications as well, keep an eye on playoff ticket sales. That will be the first indication as to what we can expect going into the future and the impact of what the economy is having now." - Gary Bettman, January 2009
There have been plenty of peculiar things about the Anaheim Ducks' series against the No. 1-seeded San Jose Sharks, but the story in the stands has to be one of the strangest. Anaheim failed to sell out either of its home games in the Battle of California, with 16,277 tickets distributed for Game 3 and 16,830 -- much closer to the capacity of 17,174 at the Honda Center -- for Game 4.
As reported by the OC Register, Game 3 broke the Ducks' playoff sellout streak at 20 games and was the fifth-worst attended home game of their 2008-09 season. Tim Ryan, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the team, told Ducks Blog that "you don't have to look any further than the economy" for a reason.
When Bettman put the onus on playoff ticket sales as an omen of future fortunes for the NHL, he made situations like the one in Anaheim important to watch. Failing to sell out a home game against a geographic rival after taking a 2-0 lead on the road is discouraging.
Also discouraging: The Carolina Hurricanes' gate, after the team surged into the playoffs and split the first two games against the New Jersey Devils. They drew 17,971 in the 18,680-capacity RBC Center for Game 3 last Sunday and 17,465 for Tuesday's stunning Game 4 victory. But hey, at least Ric Flair showed up. (H/T Dave from Carolina on Ice.)
About those Devils: New Jersey has reported three sellouts at The Rock in Newark, no matter what the visual evidence will tell you otherwise.
Traditionally, the Devils have struggled to draw in the first round against non-division playoff opponents. We've heard from a few folks on press row that attended Game 1 in Jersey that there was audible laughter when a sellout was announced. Doesn't mean every ticket wasn't distributed; just means what they saw didn't jibe with the numbers.
But the stakes are high for a franchise that's still making a case to locals that Newark is not only a great place to catch the game but a worthy community investment.
The bottom line is that a sellout can be announced to the media by any team in the NHL because attendance is completely self-reported. Fudging the numbers to avoid uncomfortable media coverage in a bad economy wouldn't be far-fetched.
But as we said when Bettman put the media on playoff ticket sales watch, these are isolated cases.
The New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes are notorious for slow first-round ticket sales. The Ducks could have suffered from making the playoff cut so late.
But the rest of the NHL? Thriving in the postseason, with huge crowds in places like St. Louis, Columbus, Washington and San Jose (at least that's what has been reported). Even much-maligned Detroit has reported two home sellouts in the first round, despite having to reach out to the enemy for seat fillers.
The NHL has different, private metrics by which to measure the strength of ticket sales in the postseason; like, for example those turnstile counts that the media's not privy to. The box score isn't going to tell the story about the economy's impact on fan support in the postseason because the self-reported numbers can't exactly be trusted.
But perhaps more important than slow sales in some cities is the undeniable enthusiasm for this playoff season. The TV ratings surges, the Web traffic, the international interest in these first-round series ... it's all positive for the NHL. And if the Carolina fans are a few hundred short of a sellout, you sure as hell can't hear it at the game.
Hopefully that enthusiasm translates into continues success at the gate as the playoffs go deeper.