Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Popularity and Affordability of Hockey

105,491 people filled Michigan Stadium last week. Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Last week, Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk posted a piece on whether or not football is dying and compared it to the popularity of baseball. It is a truly outstanding piece, and I would highly recommend giving it a read before going any further here.

For those who don't feel like reading it, here is a small excerpt:
"(NFL) Costs are skyrocketing, pricing out the common fan. Playoff teams struggle to sell tickets. When the league should be celebrating its moment in the spotlight it finds itself enmeshed in controversy (referring to Chris Kluwe and the Vikings). A mere five years ago no one would have predicted that baseball would trump football in a popularity (non)contest like it does now. But they probably should have."
After reading it, it made me wonder about where hockey would compare when it comes to the NFL and popularity. Obviously, the NHL does not attract the same type of ratings. In fact, I don't even expect it to be close. But, the NHL has come a long way since its cancelled season of 2004-05.

Ratings wise, the league is setting record numbers. Just look at last Wednesday's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the second highest viewed NHL game in the past 40 years (only the 2011 WC in Pittsburgh drew better TV ratings). 4.404 million people tuned in as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout. The game came in front of 105,491 people, who filled Michigan Stadium.

Then go back to last summer, when the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks were setting record TV ratings during their six game Stanley Cup Final series. The Blackhawks game six victory became the third highest viewed playoff game in league history, with 8.16 million viewers. Only Game 7 of the 2011 SCF between Vancouver/Boston (8.54 million viewers) and Game 6 of the 2009 SCF between Philadelphia/Chicago (8.28 million) drew more.

Its been ratings like the ones seen in June and last Wednesday, that have paved the way for the NHL to sign two mega TV deals in the past three years. In April of 2011, the league signed a 10 year deal with NBC worth $2 billion, for its US viewership. This past November, the NHL cashed in mightily in Canada, as the league and Rogers/CBC signed a blockbuster 12 year, $5.2 billion deal that will begin next year. These new TV deals will pave the way for increased salary caps and revenue streams that the league has never seen before.

Much like the NFL, the NHL continues to be ever so popular when it comes to TV ratings. But where the NFL fails, ticket sales, the NHL is making great strides.

The 2006-07 campaign was the NHL's second season following the cancelled 2004-05 debacle. As you can see in the left photo below (courtesy of, the league only had 11 teams who filled their arena to 100% capacity on average. They also had six teams who averaged less than 80% capacity, including St. Louis who was having issues getting half the Scottrade Center filled.

Now take those figures and compare them to the the 2013-14 season (above right photo). 15 (nearly 16) teams have 100% capacity averages, and only three teams sit below 80%. 22 out of 30 teams are at 90% or better. Only one team during that time has relocated, and it was the Atlanta Thrashers who moved north to Winnipeg prior to the 2011-12 season (a team who now consistently fills their arena to 100% capacity).

Now take these NHL attendance figures, and compare them to the NFL from this past season. Out of 32 teams in the league, only 11 (nearly 12) drew a 100% capacity average. 22 out of 30 teams were at 96% or higher, and no team was below 80%.

The fact that the NFL, a league that is ever so popular in the United States, only had one-third of its teams sell out every game should be a sign of optimism for Gary Bettman and the rest of the NHL. The NFL has truly out-priced their fans, as Calcaterra noted above.

Speaking of out-priced, lets look at those affordability figures for a minute.

Every year, Fan Cost Experience gives a look at the four major sports leagues in North America, and gives us each team's ticket average, concession costs, apparel costs, parking, programs, etc. This is where you can see where your favorite team stacks up against the rest of the league in terms of prices.

In the NHL report for the 2013-14 season, the most expensive venue to visit is the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs with a $615.62 Fan Cost Index rating (FCI adds up all the prices from going to a particular venue on one evening). The NHL FCI average is $359.17. By comparison, the NFL FCI is $459.65. For those doing the math at home, it will cost you $100 more to attend an NFL game.

If you are looking at just plain ticket prices, the average NHL ticket price is $61.62. The highest is Toronto ($122.20), and the lowest is Dallas ($37.28). To compare, the average NFL ticket price is $81.54 with the highest coming from New England ($117.84) and the lowest from Cleveland ($54.20). Again for those doing the math, it will cost you $20 more to buy just one ticket to an NFL game in comparison to an NHL game.

For the NHL, seeing the struggles of the NFL to fill their stadiums has to be a great point of optimism. The most popular sport in America (debatable) can't fill stadiums, and the NHL continues to see their arenas filled to the brim nightly. They are also doing this while continuing to provide more affordable ticket prices, during a time when unemployment has not been a great point of pride for Americans.

Something else the NHL has done very well in the past decade, was find a way to make the league more competitive. The parity in the league has been unparalleled, as all 30 teams in the NHL has had at least one playoff appearance following the 04-05 lockout. During that same time, the NFL has had four teams (Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, and St. Louis) who have yet to reach the postseason (also worth noting that there are fewer playoff spots in the NFL).

Hockey has come a long way the past decade. Playing the game yourself is a rather expensive venture (a different post for a different day), but watching the best players in the world has become more popular in terms of TV ratings and attendance figures.

We all may hate Gary Bettman for the fact that he has had three lockouts during his tenure as NHL Commissioner. But what we have seen him do the past decade is nothing short of incredible. He has made hockey in the United States credible. He put the league on the map, and has it now going toe to toe with the other major leagues (the NHL was an afterthought when he took over in 1992).

Hockey is the coolest sport (literally) in America. Now, it has quickly become one of the most popular sports. It has taken a lot of time and effort, but the league is finally up there with the big boys. It may not be as popular as the NFL, but the NHL is certainly on their way to giving them a run for their money.

Its something you never thought was possible, was it?

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesferrell

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