January 26, 2009
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had a marathon session with the media during all-star weekend, discussing topics like the future of fighting in the NHL (it's staying, if perhaps modified), League revenue (there's still "real growth") and rumors that the Nashville Predators' ownership will purchase tickets to cover an attendance shortfall in their lease (Bettman: "I sometimes marvel at where some of these reports come from.").
Much of it was straight from the usual stump speech, but Bettman made (and has since repeated) one proclamation that was rather startling, about the NHL in the economic recession:
"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."
Playoff ticket sales as a barometer of economic stability going into 2009-2010? Color me cynical, but isn't that a colossal straw man ready to be knocked down when the numbers show fans are still willing to spend money to see the games that matter most? The NHL could safely start penning the "all is well, remain calm" postseason ticket sales press release today.
Take a look at the current standings, and tell me where the indicators of recessionary trouble are going to be found. The New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes are notorious for slow first-round ticket sales; every other team in the Eastern Conference, save for perhaps the Buffalo Sabres, will sell out.
In the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings will likely face the same challenges they've had in recent years with postseason attendance. But that might be it; hell, if Arizona sports fans have shown us anything in the last year, it's a bandwagon mentality in the playoffs.
Maybe Bettman's right, and we'll end up seeing teams struggle to find 18,000 fans to pay playoff prices ... though I think in most cities, there are plenty of fence-sitters that simply wait for the playoffs to take the financial plunge.
But isn't the real issue that after the Florida Panthers' have a drivers license/get a ticket program; the Phoenix Coyotes' all-you-can-eat nights; the St. Louis Blues giving away mortgage payments; the Buffalo Sabres disrupting their variable pricing program; and the New York Islanders offering fans free tickets to another game if the team wins on certain nights ... that after all of that, Bettman's waiting for the playoffs for indications that the economy's taking its toll?