The surging popularity of the National Hockey League in the U.S. can’t be denied.
The revenue confirms it. The ratings confirm it. The buzz around star players and successful teams, nationally and locally, confirms it. We just had over 105,000 fans watch a game worth two points in the standings, freezing their rumps off in the snow.
It’s been an ongoing trend since the League rebooted after the 2005 lockout. There’s been some luck involved, like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin arriving and having a steady parade of big market teams in the Stanley Cup Final. But the end result is still an unprecedented level of enthusiasm for the product.
Meanwhile, what the National Basketball Association has experienced over the last five years can be correctly termed an “enthusiasm gap.” Some markets thrive because their teams are winners; other markets that had winning teams once upon a time have decided the product is stale; still other markets simply haven’t built, or rebuilt, fan bases due to a lack of success.
In 2013-14, the comparison between the leagues reveals how stark a difference in enthusiasm we’re seeing. Or, at the very least, how much more aggressive the NHL is being in pushing its product.
From Nina Falcone of CSN Chicago, news of sellouts in the land of puck and lack thereof on the hardwood:
Throughout the 2013-14 season, 15 NHL markets have averaged at least 100 percent capacity in their home stands: The Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Minnesota Wild, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets.
The Red Wings lead the charts at a 118.5 percent capacity, an average of 23,780 fans per game, while the Blackhawks take second at a 109.2 percent capacity, averaging 21,528 fans per game. (Note: Without the Winter Classic, the Red Wings are averaging 20,066 fans per game. If you don't count the outdoor game, the Blackhawks are leading the attendance charts. Expect the Blackhawks to get a healthy bump when they play their game at Soldier Field on March 1.)
The NBA, on the other hand, has only eight markets averaging at least 100 percent capacity this season: The Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets.
From ESPN.com’s charts, here’s how this thing breaks down through Wednesday night:
Pretty impressive, right? And of the 15 teams that are selling out every night, 10 are located in the U.S., which hasn’t always been the case in the NHL when it comes to full capacity.
More impressive: The NHL traditionally has higher ticket prices than the NBA. For example, in the 2012-13 season the NHL had an average ticket price of $61.01 which topped that of the NBA ($50.99) according to Team Marketing Report. (And that was in a year with a lockout for the NHL.)
Yes, the numbers are incredible. Look at road attendance: The NBA has 16 teams playing on the road to buildings 90 percent or higher in capacity filled; the NHL has 29(!) teams playing in buildings with 90 percent or higher capacity.
And wait a moment … 16 teams played to 100 percent or higher capacity at home in 2011-12 as well, over 41 home dates!
What about 2010-11? Oh, man, upset: Only 28 road teams played in buildings that had 90 percent or better filled capacity for the season.
The teams that sold out every night in 2010-11? There were 12 of them, with the Los Angeles Kings (99.8 percent), Minnesota Wild (99.7), New York Rangers (99.5) and Ottawa Senators (99.3) less than one percent away from joining the total.
None of this is meant to provide needles for the NHL’s balloons. It’s completely accurate to say that the League has seen a surge at the gate in many markets, and that success from three years ago has been sustained through a work stoppage. It’s been over 15 years in the making, but it can be argued that the NHL is hot and the NBA is not.
But this is also a reminder that, in the end, attendance figures are rubbish.
Both leagues go with “tickets distributed.” Not sold, not a turnstile count, but distributed. It’s a completely nebulous bit of creative accounting that is easily manipulated by a team if it needs to, say, keep a sellout streak alive.
Unlike puck possession, is one case where what you observe at the rink is always going to be more accurate than the stats: How many times have you been to the arena, seen empty rows and luxury boxes and yet the game is a sellout?
Remember when Jerry Moyes bankrupted the Phoenix Coyotes? One of the documents in the case was about turnstile count vs. reported attendance. The Coyotes’ tickets distributed in 2008-09: 14,626 on average for 41 home dates. The turnstile count, according to Moyes: 10,943 fans on average.
Look, hockey fans: We can still pop the champagne here. The League’s really, really going strong. We’ve taken slings and arrows from basketball fans while watching the diminishing returns of the NBA – a league that has its stars clustered on a handful of teams while desperately trying to generate new ones on moribund franchises – and it’s good to see hockey’s popularity getting recognized in comparison with its arena-mates.
But never lose sight of the fact that attendance is a shell game of frequently fudged numbers. Our league’s always been pretty damn good at papering buildings – 14,709 a night for the Florida Panthers this season? – and maybe we’re just better at it, overall, than the other guys.
Or maybe hockey's just cooler and better and more awesome and popular than basketball. We'll also accept that answer.