Low Canadian dollar blamed for escrow, but what about sagging attendance in big markets?

Paychecks were a bit lighter for NHLers this past week as a result of rising escrow. That's because the NHL is projecting a drop in hockey related revenue, and while the struggling Canadian dollar doesn't help, neither does declining attendance in some of the league's best markets.
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Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

When NHL players looked at their paychecks Monday, they saw their stipends were 13.5 percent smaller to reflect the new escrow rate for the second quarter of the season. That was more than the 11.5 percent the league held back in the first quarter for escrow.

The league and the NHL Players’ Association agreed to the new mark because the NHL is projecting a drop in hockey related revenues. A poorly performing Canadian dollar was cited as the primary reason for the predicted dip in revenues, which underlines just how much the seven Canadian franchises drive the engine for this league.

Which brings us to attendance. The NHL is a gate-driven league, the most reliant of the Big Four professional sports in North America on selling tickets. In terms of ticket revenues, the league is actually up three percent, largely because of an average rise of 3.9 percent in ticket prices. That would indicate that attendance has basically held steady league-wide.

And that’s all well and good, but the reality is that attendance is down, in some markets significantly, for the franchises that most drive revenues for the league from the same point last season. There was a time when sellouts in Montreal, Calgary, New York and Vancouver and near-sellouts in Ottawa were as routine as the sun rising and setting, but that is not the case anymore. The Canadiens have had tickets available for seven of their 16 home games this season. The Flames, if you can believe it, have not sold out the Scotiabank Saddledome once this season, despite the fact they’re a wildly entertaining team that is in first place in its division. The Rangers have sold out Madison Square Garden just once, as have the Canucks in Rogers Arena. The Senators are a nightmare that is getting worse.

Yes, things are looking up in Colorado, where the Avalanche are attracting more than 2,000 fans per game than this time last year. The Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes are up significantly as well, coming in with the second- and third-highest increases over last season. But these are markets where tickets prices are lower and there tend to be more free tickets. In the markets, though, where people actually pay top dollar for their tickets, things are either stagnant or dropping.

In fact, in Canadian markets, there is not a single team that is attracting more fans. Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg are selling out every game, so the only way to grow ticket revenues there are to raise prices. The league’s television money hasn’t changed, the corporate sponsorship has not dropped off and people are still buying lots of sweaters. A drop in bums in the seats might not be contributing to a subsequent drop in revenues, but it’s undoubtedly not helping them grow enough either.

As you can see by the chart below, only seven teams have significantly seen bigger crowds this season, most of them in markets where ticket prices are lower. A total of 15 teams, many of them heavy hitters, are significantly below last year’s pace and nine have basically held steady.

Here is where each team is in terms of attendance from the same point last season. (Outdoor games and games in Europe are not counted as home games.)

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