Mitch Albom is no longer the most prominent MSM voice wondering about the attendance struggles for the Detroit Red Wings. Today, the Wall Street Journal picks up the story in "What Happened to Hockeytown?"; an in-depth and balanced look at the causes and effects of the empty seats at the Joe, where "blocks of four tickets could be purchased online three hours before Game 2" and scalpers were looking to dump tix for less than face value. The first factor is the most obvious one: Our booming war-time economy.
The tepid turnout is a reflection of both Michigan's sagging economy and the tough battle the NHL faces for fans. The Detroit area has been hit hard in the past few years as the Big Three auto makers and their suppliers slashed tens of thousands of jobs. The region ranks near the top in home foreclosures, too. Detroit's entertainment dollar is "severely stretched," says Comerica Bank chief economist Dana Johnson.
As the Journal points out, the Red Wings have tried to be proactive in marketing to fans after ignoring this issue for several seasons. Detroit hired Steve Violetta from Nashville as a marketing exec, and he responded by adding promotions and slashing prices for tickets and concessions. It's helped, but it hasn't stopped the Red Wings' attendance problems from becoming a major storyline for the playoffs.
The article goes on to indentify the "too much of a good thing" factor, in which so much success creates fan "malaise" that deadens the arena and keeps fans away. (As a Devils fan, I've always felt there's some truth to this.) A touchier subject is the fact that his collection of Red Wings has a much more pronounced international flavor than previous championship teams:
Others suggest that Detroit hockey fans need to form bonds with the new players, often Europeans, who dominate the roster. Steve Yzerman, the team's longtime face, retired in 2006. Other well-known names like Brendan Shanahan now play in other cities. The stands are still flooded with fans wearing jerseys with the names of Mr. Yzerman and Mr. Shanahan on their backs.
Fans do appear to be warming to the new generation of Red Wings. Center Johan Franzen, for instance, is on a record-setting scoring pace in the playoffs. Veteran Kris Draper insists that Mr. Franzen, nicknamed "The Mule" for his gritty play, is custom-made for Detroit's blue-collar ethic. Others, including center Henrik Zetterberg, are slowly gaining recognition after spending years playing in Mr. Yzerman's shadow.
Don Cherry's "it's a redneck town" comments about Detroit were an off-shoot of this argument, leading Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey to fire back with an "it's the economy, stupid" jab at Cherry: "Well Don, anyone who knows anything about what's happening in Detroit knows that it is the economy and the next time you go on a rant, you should check your facts."
All of these reasons have varying degrees of validity. Yet the bottom line is that the best team in the NHL is struggling to sell out conference championship home games. That's embarrassing, and in the eyes of Battle of Western Canada, it's a rather disturbing harbinger of things to come: "If Detroit can not sell tickets now, in the third round of the playoffs when their team is looking like the best, then how are they going to sell tickets in a few years when they slip to worst in the league?"