If I’m an NHL player, I’m not counting on getting any escrow payments back this season. In fact, the way things are looking, they might even need to sock away some more for when the nasty escrow man comes calling after this season.
When the NHL set this year’s escrow payments at 18 percent, it must have been looking at its own dismal attendance figures. Last year, players paid 12.9 percent of their salaries in escrow, which meant they gave more than $207 million back to their employers.
But if bums in the seats are any indication, things aren’t about to get better anytime soon, either for the league or the players. That’s because attendance, which is by far the league’s most prominent cash cow, is trending downward in almost every way imaginable.
Take last season for example. After the first month of the season, the league was trumpeting the fact it had experienced its best October ever, with an average attendance of 17,388 per game. It also marked the first time the league had gone over the 17,000 mark for October. This season, however, league attendance dipped to 16,981, a difference of more than 400 fans per game. It might not sound like much, but when you multiply that by 186 games (the four games that were played in Europe to begin the season were not counted in the total), it represents a substantial amount of revenue.
And things didn’t get any better in November, either. In fact, they got worse. League-wide per-game attendance in November was just 16,255, a drop of just more than 700 per game from a mediocre October. Last year, the league posted an average attendance of 16,950 in November.
Overall last season, attendance through October and November was 17,166 per game; overall this season it was down to 16,606 per game through the first two months.
And, yes, while the dismal Phoenix Coyotes account for a significant amount of the decline, it’s not all their fault league attendance is sagging. Crowds for 16 of the league’s 30 teams were down in October and November compared to the same point last season. Without factoring the Coyotes into the equation, the league has averaged 16,840 per game so far this season: 17,214 in October and 16,489 in November.
And there have been some big surprises with noticeable dips in markets where people actually pay for their tickets. For example, the Ottawa Senators, who have sold out only three of 15 games this season, are down more than 1,600 from last year and the Anaheim Ducks are down more than 1,800 a game. It's worth noting, however, Chicago's drop can be attributed to renovations in the United Center that reduced the number of seats and that the team is currently running at an NHL-best 104 percent capacity.
Look for attendance to improve as the season progresses, but that happens every year so it’s really going to have to bounce upward to reach last season’s numbers. And considering almost every small-market team in the United States fudges its figures by about 2,000 a game, the numbers are looking sparse.
Here is each team’s average attendance through the first two months of this season compared to last season and the difference:
’09-10 PER GAME
‘08-09 PER GAME
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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