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The Dallas Stars and the empty seat anxiety

On Monday evening, the Dallas Stars hosted the Phoenix Coyotes in their second game of the season at American Airlines Center. The announced attendance — meaning tickets distributed, not fans inside the arena — was 6,306 spectators … or, as you can see, 6,305 spectators and one Cuba Gooding, Jr.

It was the smallest regular-season crowd the Stars have ever had in that building, drawing ridicule from TSN SportsCentre and the expected jabs from the Make It Eight crowd in Canada. Of course, the majority of them ignored the mitigating circumstances: The Texas Rangers playing in the ALCS and an oddly timed 5 p.m. start on a holiday.

That said: The Stars' attendance has been a concern for the last two seasons. Large sections of empty seats are visible on Center Ice for nearly every weeknight home game, in that so-sparsely-attended-as-to-be-distracting way they are the Coyotes and were for the Atlanta Thrashers (R.I.P.)

So what gives?

The Stars averaged 15,073 tickets distributed per game in 2010-11, which was down from 17,251 in the previous season. Their early season attendance was low — under 14,000 for seven of their first 13 home dates — and the team had peaks and valleys all season despite their presence in the playoff race.

According to Andrew's Stars Page, the attendance average has declined in Dallas each season since 2005-06, save for a one-year bump back over 18,000 in 2007-08.

These are two seasons in a row in which the Rangers have hurt the Stars' gate at the start of the season. This is what Brandon Worley had to write about it in Oct. 2010:

Because of the financial woes of the team and Tom Hicks' continuing problems, the Stars' marketing ability has obviously taken a shot. The public exposure for the Stars around the DFW area is astoundingly low and when you combine that with two bad seasons and no new excitement for the Stars, you have an overall fanbase that is just not that interested in paying a significant amount for single tickets for a game that -- in their minds -- is just going to end badly. The buzz around this Stars team in Dallas is damn near non-existent; it's no wonder the Stars are having trouble with attendance.

Adding to that, the local media is completely focused elsewhere. There are no front page posts on the Dallas Stars, there is no attention on a team that is off to a relatively hot spot. So you have a Stars team that is basically forgotten by all except for the most die hard of fans.

Now, the obvious solution is to just win. Continue to win consistently and the Stars start to build that ravenous fanbase back up again. After all, the Rangers weren't seeing this level of attention back in April, May or June. It wasn't until the Rangers had taken a commanding lead over the AL West that we really started to see mainstream attention for the team Right now the Stars are in the same boat.

But it's not good enough to win in Dallas, at least in the regular season. The Stars need to captivate fans again. This team has seen beloved favorites and past champions retire or leave for other teams in the last few seasons. It's a difficult transition.

The New Jersey Devils, as I've seen first hand, have struggled with it too: Dominant, popular teams from a decade ago have morphed into a mish-mash of veteran faces, star players and young talent that's not ready to shine quite yet, with little to show for it in the playoffs. You remember loving these teams; now, it's not even lust.

The Stars are on their third coach in four seasons. They're not expected to challenge in the West, although you get the sense Kari Lehtonen(notes) would like a say in that. They're just not the draw they were, and especially against the Coyotes at 5 p.m. when the local ball team's in the playoffs.

The one thought running through my head while watching the Stars game yesterday — besides the notion that the NHL should create some [expletive] award to honor guys like Mike Ribeiro(notes) who dominate in the skills competition — was that this franchise needs its own Pegula.

The vibe in Buffalo is re-energized, optimistic and rabid. Whether Tom Gaglardi can be that guy for Dallas remains to be seen, but settling the ownership dilemma and then having that ownership make an aggressive attempt to restart this team's buzz is more important to filling those seats than leading the Pacific in November.

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