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Does success in the Playoffs translate to Fan loyalty?

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:

YearAverage AttendanceIncrease or Decrease (%)Overall in NHL

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:

YearAverage AttendanceIncrease or Decrease (%)Overall in NHL
200412,33021.37% decrease29/30

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: 

YearAverage AttendanceIncrease or Decrease (%)Overall in NHL
200719,8763.08% decrease3/30
200818,6925.95% decrease8/30

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:

YearAverage AttendanceIncrease or Decrease (%)Overall in NHL
200816,6334.331% decrease20/30
200916,5720.367% decrease21/30

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:

YearAverage AttendanceIncrease or Decrease (%)Overall in NHL
200916,9901.18 % decrease18/30

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).

YearAverage AttendanceOverall in NHL

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.