Analysis of NHL Attendance in the 2018-19 Regular Season

With the playoffs currently filling up stadiums with frenzied fans, it’s time to take a

look back at what was really going on with attendance at NHL games throughout the

regular season. Many professional hockey organizations have fiercely loyal local fan

bases, but others haven’t been able to be as competitive in larger, more congested

markets. This past season has had some interesting attendance quirks, which aren’t

necessarily tied to team success. Take the New York Islanders for example, who split

their home games across two venues and subsequently saw the lowest average

attendance in the league. Despite playing in front of nearly half of the fans the Chicago

Blackhawks did on a typical night, the Islanders made the playoffs and saw reasonable

success. Attendance is normally one of the best indicators of team popularity and

success, but there are some interesting underlying factors that affect how many fans

come out for a game on any given night.

Nine teams averaged 100 percent or more capacity throughout the entirety of the

regular season, and many aren’t a surprise near the top of this list. Teams like the

Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, and Toronto Maple Leafs have been around since

the 1920s and have built up incredibly loyal fan bases. Others in this group like the

Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights are slightly surprising but make sense. Both

teams don’t have to compete for fans with other professional sports franchises, although

they play in smaller markets. Winnipeg is an interesting case because of teams that

play all of their home games in only one stadium, it has the lowest seating capacity at

14,964. It’s difficult to predict whether or not the team would be able to sell out a larger

arena.

Despite having such a small stadium, there are still six teams below the Jets in

average attendance. Most of these teams weren’t competitive and didn’t make the

playoffs, like the Ottawa Senators, who finished dead last in the final standings. The

Carolina Hurricanes, who finished level in points with the Jets at the end of the regular

season, are a surprise on this list despite their extremely marketable ‘Storm Surge’ post

game celebrations. Additionally, the Hurricanes only competition in the market is the

Carolina Panthers, but they only play once a week and their season ended before the

new year.

The case of the Hurricanes displays an attendance issue among NHL teams that

share a similar categorization as recent expansion teams. Of that bottom group of six in

terms of average attendance, three teams, the Arizona Coyotes, Florida Panthers, and

Hurricanes, came into the league in the 1990s. Since entering the league, these teams

have consistently been near the bottom of the average attendance rankings. This would

indicate a chronic issue with expansion teams’ inability to build similar solid fan bases to

the older and more recognizable franchises if not for a few success stories.

First, the Nashville Predators, who entered the league as an expansion team in

1999, have built a Stanley Cup contending squad and consistently sell out their building

every night. This is despite the potential relocation of the team around ten years ago.

Nashville is a similar market to Carolina in terms of competition between pro sports

teams, but the small disparity in team success doesn’t seem to explain the much larger

disparity in attendance very well. The Golden Knights, the NHL’s most recent expansion

franchise, have found the formula for attendance success. Vegas is an outlier simply

because it is the best first-year expansion franchise in NHL history, making it all the way

to the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season. With the team’s immediate high level of

success and the absence of other pro sports teams in Las Vegas (for now), it’s easy to

see why the Knights are doing so well in bringing fans to their games.

At the very bottom of the average attendance rankings are the New York

Islanders. No other team in the league had as unique of a season in terms of

attendance. The Islanders were forced to split their home games between the Barclays

Center in Brooklyn and the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, which have seating

capacities of 19,000 and 14,500, respectively. This is because the Islanders are waiting

on their new stadium, Belmont Park Arena, which is being built just east of the New

York City limits in Nassau County but won’t be completed until 2021. The team almost

evenly split its regular season home games between the two venues, playing 20 in

Brooklyn and 21 on Long Island.

The Barclays Center was a challenge to the Islanders because of its layout. One

end of the arena remains empty for all Islanders games because it is situated over the

net at that end which makes it impossible to see what’s going on from those seats. That

being said, there is still a swath of empty seats throughout the rest of the stadium for

Islanders games. Games at the Nassau Coliseum are a different story, with the

Islanders filling a respectable 93 percent of the total capacity on an average night. This

shouldn’t be a surprise considering the Islanders are a good team, they finished the

year fifth in the overall league standings and won their first-round playoff series.

Attendance is one of the most telling metrics of team success, but there a

number of factors that affect it that can only be uncovered via some in-depth research.

The list of average attendance or percent capacity does not tell the whole story. The

New York Islanders are a prime example, as they had to juggle playing home games in

two different venues. Additionally, there is no sole reason why one team brings more

fans to its games than another. Seemingly the only way to ensure consistently high

attendance is to have been around for more than 50 years with reasonable playoff

success over that span.

Isaac Spear

USBC Journal Writer

Class of 2021