Does success in the Playoffs translate to Fan loyalty?

Posted by David Minuk in Columns,Editorials on May 21, 2009 — 12 Comments

As a spin-off of the conversation that Kyle’s post sparked regarding how the NHL can grow the game in non-traditional markets and as part of the ongoing debate surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes we look at the suggestion that if the Coyotes had had some playoff success then this would have translated into fans in the stands.

Now we might not ever know if this statement is accurate or not but perhaps by looking at some of the other non-traditional markets that have made deep playoff runs we might gain some insight into what could have been in Phoenix.

We will look at the years following a team’s run to the Stanley Cup (regardless if they won or lost) to see if the post season success translated into attendance numbers in the years following.

In 1996 the Florida Panthers, 3 years removed from expansion, made an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals which they eventually lost to the Colorado Avalanche. 

So the numbers for the 1996 Florida Panthers break down as follows:

Year Average Attendance Increase or Decrease (%) Overall in NHL
1996 13,278 21/26
1997 14,703 10.73% 23/26
1998 14,703 0.00 22/26
1999 18,493 25.77% 4/27

The Florida Panthers did see an immediate increase in fan attendance following the success of the 96′ team.  This is significant as the team did not make the any noise in the years following their Cup run.  They were knocked out in the first round of the 1997 playoffs and failed to qualify both in 1998 and 1999.  Perhaps part of the reason for the fan attendance in 1999 and the main reason for the big attendance numbers was the arrival of the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure, who was perhaps one of the most exciting players to ever play the game.

Moving onto the next non-traditional market we have the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes who lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Cup Finals in 5 games.  In a similar occurrence as what happened in Florida, the Canes were unable to match the success of 2002 in the two years following the Cup run and failed to qualify for the playoffs in both 2003 and 2004 and the team felt it in the stands as fan interest declined big time.

The numbers for the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes break down as follows:

Year Average Attendance Increase or Decrease (%) Overall in NHL
2002 15,508 24/30
2003 15,682 1.12% 19/30
2004 12,330 21.37% decrease 29/30

Interestingly the number of new fans was quite marginal following an improbable Stanley Cup run and even more surprising was the huge decline in 2004 that saw a 21.37% decrease in fan support.


Now the next non-traditional market to look at would be the 2004 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning however you would think that the lockout of 2005 would likely skew the numbers but it appears that fans in Tampa were not bothered by the stoppage.

The numbers for the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning break down as follows: 

Year Average Attendance Increase or Decrease (%) Overall in NHL
2004 17,820 12/30
2006 20,509 15.09% 2/30
2007 19,876 3.08% decrease 3/30
2008 18,692 5.95% decrease 8/30

The fans in Tampa love them some Lightning and continued to support the team following the lockout. 

We return to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 as they beat the Edmonton Oilers following the lockout to win the Stanley Cup.  The Canes had the best finish in franchise history (including during their time as the Hartford Whalers).  Now we know that generally the lockout had a negative impact on fan retention but how did it affect the Hurricanes?

The numbers for the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes break down as follows:

Year Average Attendance Increase or Decrease (%) Overall in NHL
2006 15,596 21/30
2007 17,386 11.47% 15/30
2008 16,633 4.331% decrease 20/30
2009 16,572 0.367% decrease 21/30

Not surprisingly there was a decent increase in the fan base after the Hurricanes captured the Stanley Cup and while this number decreased it wasn’t a significant decrease. 

So with these two Carolina examples (one in which the team won the Cup and one in which it didn’t) we see that simple success in the Playoffs(i.e. making the Cup Finals) didn’t translate into increased fan support whereas winning the Stanley Cup ensured an increase in fan support.

Our final group of non-traditional markets to look at would be in Southern California and the Ducks run to the Cup back in 2007. 

Looking at the Ducks numbers:

Year Average Attendance Increase or Decrease (%) Overall in NHL
2007 16,389 20/30
2008 17,193 4.90% 15/30
2009 16,990 1.18 % decrease 18/30

Ducks fans celebrate the Cup win.

So what can we see from these numbers?  We see that in the short term winning the Stanley Cup results in an increase in fan interest.  No real surprise.  Getting to the Cup finals will help but doesn’t ensure the same numbers as when you win.

So what does this mean?  As part of a discussion that I had with an Atlanta Thrashers fan a few months back, who felt that the Thrashers just needed some success in order for this to translate into fan attendance (similar to the argument being put forward for Phoenix), my question was why?  Obviously everyone loves to back a winner.  I mean who wants to support a team that loses year after year (I’m looking at you New York Islanders) but at the same time these new fans seem to me to be somewhat fair weather.  If the team does well, then they will support them, but if they don’t win it all, then the support just isn’t there.   Whatever happened to supporting a team simply because you are a hockey fan?

In the end a long playoff run would likely have helped the Coyotes gain some fan support but would it have been enough to overcome all the problems the franchise faced?   The numbers that have been reported don’t seem too far off from other franchises (Islanders, Thrashers, Predators and even the Avalanche).

Year Average Attendance Overall in NHL
1996 11,316 26/26
1997 15,585 20/26
1998 15,404 18/26
1999 15,547 22/27
2000 14,991 22/28
2001 14,224 27/30
2002 13,165 29/30
2003 13,229 29/30
2004 15,467 19/30
2006 15,582 22/30
2007 14,988 24/30
2008 14,820 29/30
2009 14,875 28/30

While it appears that fans in Phoenix want to save the team I’m not sure a long playoff run would have been enough to overcome the obstacles this franchise is facing.  As NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said back in 2008

The big-money guys, the corporate guys, don’t live in Glendale, if you live in Scottsdale, Glendale is not an easy place to get to. 

But the fans continue to show support despite these negatives.

So are you a fair weather fan?  A band wagon jumper?  Or am I being overly critical of those new fans who are just attracted to a team once they start winning?  Sound off in the comments section below.

*all NHL attendance figures provided by ESPN.

12 responses to “Does success in the Playoffs translate to Fan loyalty?”

  1. Richard says:

    Terrific article.

  2. Drew says:

    I echo Richard’s sentiment, a very interesting subject matter and well researched article. The question I have is how many fans out there trust the reported NHL attendance numbers? I know that I am very skeptical of some of the numbers cited.

  3. david says:

    Thanks Rich.

    Ironically Drew as I wrote this and as I tabulated the attendance figures I couldn’t help but think about the scepticism you specifically would have with some of the figures.

  4. Missourimike says:

    It seems natural that teams undergo a ying/yang in terms of attendance and that winning brings about new fans. Its on the teams to do whatever they can to retain them. Sure it might seem fairweather for somone who grew up with hockey but for some fans in non-traditional markets there are many other sporting options to select from, so if the team isn’t winning and hockey isn’t your primary sport, then it would seem normal to become disinterested.

  5. ladders11 says:

    Thanks for writing – great article.

    One important note about the Florida Panthers is that they moved from Miami Arena to Sunrise for the start of the 1998 season. The old Miami Arena had a very small capacity. Wikipedia lists it at 14,696 which would mean the Panthers sold out every game after their ’96 run – for two straight years. Then they moved 90 minutes away and started all over again.

    This is a sad factor in the NHL expansion: initial years in a temporary facility while they convince the-powers-that-be to pony up taxpayer money for a brand new arena with suites. For Phx, TB, Fla, & Car, there was a big distance between their first and second facilities.

    Personally, I have scalped tickets at gametime in Fla, Car and Was significantly below face value. I’m talking lower bowl for $20-$40, discount of up to 80%. In the case of the Florida Panthers, I couldn’t help but suspect that the team was involved in the scalping, because otherwise nobody would try to broker tickets given the prevalence of discounting.

  6. Calihockey says:

    The factor that needs considering as Missourimike said is that many fans in non-traditional markets did not grow up with hockey so the tendancy to look like bandwagon jumpers might seem more prevelant because these are not the same die-hard fans in the traditional markets (Minnesota/Michigan/New York/Canada).

    Given time (and of course the giant population centers) many of these cities could have sizeable core groups of fans. Albeit perhaps too late for Phoenix.

    As Ladders says, oftentimes fans are stuck in brutal, old buildings as they wait for teams to develop proper arenas. (of course its nice when they build said arena somewhere in the location of the majority of fans).

  7. david says:

    Missouri/Cali – I agree that these fans aren’t the same as the ones who grew up anticipating HNIC on Saturday’s and that some consideration should be given as a result.

    Ladders – Very informative. Thanks once again. In the words of Johnny Carson “I did not know that!”. The one stat I could have included (but would have required more math on my part) was % occupancy of these arena’s because as you correctly point out, if they were at 100% attendance, then only having 13,000 and change to a game would have meant that they were at capacity. Although you have to admit that being able to watch the Russian Rocket in 1999 was a nice bonus.

  8. Slapshot says:

    Just found you guys. Great site. Really enjoyed your article.

    My gut reaction is that fair weather people and fans I guess tend to only stick around when times are good and unless you have a Detroit Red Wings franchise (which most NHL teams are not) the times will not always be good, so what will ensure that even if Phoenix was to make the Cup and win, that these fans would show up during the bad times?

  9. david says:

    From Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic:

    When Jerry Colangelo became the Suns’ first general manager 41 years ago, he made his expectations about a fan base clear: “A community owes a team nothing.”

    It’s a mantra to which he still subscribes.

    “From the beginning, I thought, ‘You can’t complain, demand or beg,’ ” Colangelo said Monday. “You have to earn a community’s respect and support, and that’s often by how you conduct yourself.

    “And winning, we all know, is the cure-all.”

    For all the legalese, all the he-said he-said banter that will be tossed about Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court regarding the Coyotes’ potential relocation, it’s hard not to dwell on the most basic question: Would things be different if the team had put together several successful seasons?

    Here’s one unequivocal “yes.”

    The Valley often is mocked for its fair-weathered fandom. Green Bay Packers supporters pound their frost-bitten chests about their willingness to brave sub-zero temperatures.

    Good for them. But should we be chastised for having other options?

    It’s time to stop apologizing for what we are. We’re bandwagoners. We like winners. If you stink or play half-heartedly, well, we have better things to do. If you want our attention, you have to work for it. We’re a city of transplants. Only the Suns have fans from multi-generations. The Cardinals are just starting down that path.

    When the NBA put an expansion franchise here in 1968, it was another 20 years before a second professional team, the Cardinals, relocating from St. Louis, showed up. The Coyotes came from Winnipeg in 1996, and the Diamondbacks surfaced two years later.

    “I knew we would be a little oversaturated, but I was hopeful that, because of the incredible growth in our marketplace, we would grow into it,” Colangelo said. “In my mind, I wanted us to be a vibrant sports market, and I had enough belief, right or wrong, that if each did their job, were competitive and knew their business, there would be room for everyone.”

    It was Colangelo whom NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman first contacted after it became clear the Winnipeg Jets were going to move and be in need of investors. Colangelo helped find some.

    Unlike the Diamondbacks, who won a World Series in their fourth year of existence, the Coyotes never advanced past the first round of the playoffs in 12 seasons here. They’ve missed the postseason completely the past six tries.

    That’s a hard way to build momentum in a sports community that’s easily distracted.

    Winning is important to us. Just ask the Cardinals.

    During their 18 seasons at Sun Devil Stadium, three of their four highest attendance marks came from their lone winning season (1998), their lone .500 season (1994) and their first season (1988).

    These days, they’re the hottest ticket in town thanks to an important convergence of forces: a new facility and an accomplished team. They’ve sold out all 32 home games (that includes preseason and playoffs) in three seasons at University of Phoenix Stadium. In 18 previous years at Sun Devil Stadium, they sold out 12 games.

    “We had heard for years, ‘Give us a comfortable place to play and a competitive product on the field, and we’ll come,’ ” Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said. “That’s what we did.”

    Bidwill doesn’t agree with the cheap shots directed at Valley fans, saying, “I think we’ve got a great sports fan base, and I think they’re well informed.”

    The Coyotes, too, have a start-of-the-art facility, but it can be frustrating for much of their fan base to visit. Unlike the Cardinals, whose games almost always are on Sundays, Coyotes games frequently are on weekday evenings, and the majority of fans are fighting rush-hour traffic to get there.

    In this community, you have to work harder to grab our attention. A losing franchise and a hard-to-reach facility isn’t the way.

    A consistently competitive product would make a difference. We’re unique that way. And we make no apologizes for it.

  10. Danielle James says:

    This is another excellent post, Handsome D, and I’m hoping you didn’t produce it while driving. These are thoughtful posts and I’ve enjoyed reading them all. As you know I’ve been reading back in the archives and I notice a real bounce in the number and quality of comments being made lately. Why is that? About bandwagon jumpers: if you are taken to a game and are taken with the game and become excited about the team and the sport and become a big supporter of both in a short period of time are you a bandwagon jumper or a new fan? I’ve been a fan of sports in general and hockey in particular all my life. Being born into my family I couldn’t have avoided it if I tried. But I’ve also taken friends to their first games in a number of sports and some of them have become capital R rabid fans very quickly. I guess it’s the test of time and with it the establishing of tradition that really is needed for a sports franchise to grow. That could be realtively easy to get for an NHL franchise in a Hamiltonish location now, but it’s more preaching to the converted there. In a place like Phoenix the sport has to convert the people before it can preach to them. Gretzky was a messiah to hockey in LA. What would happen in Phoenix if it was 1988 and he went there, I wonder. Maybe it won’t ever work in some of those places. I think that we live in an age where diversion via entertainment is in high demand, but at the same time standards are very high too and attention spans are short.

  11. Danielle James says:

    Have a good weekend and enjoy three straight gamedays, Big D. Too bad one’s an afternoon, but it’s better than going dark.

  12. david says:

    Nope Danielle, the idea behind the article came to me as I was reading the discourse between Kyle and Texas regarding Kyle’s post on Monday (How the NHL can grow in non-traditional markets) although driving between Manitoba and Michigan (all 16 hrs) did provide me with ample time to come up with some new ideas.

    Perhaps, like yourself, IC is reaching new and informed readers who are willing to share their experience on our site and for that we are thankful.

    And I wouldn’t classify someone who is new to the sport and starts to support a team as a band wagon jumper. However if said team (let’s call them the Wings) started to go in the tank and said friend got off the Wagon (off the wagon or on the wagon, I can’t ever remember), then my feeling would be that they are in fact on (guess its on) the bandwagon.

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