The other day I came across the MLS soccer website, and just out of curiosity, decided to try and find out what the average attendance was for an MLS game. I was fairly shocked to discover than for the past 4 seasons, the average attendance at MLS regular season games was over 15 000, and in 2007 was nearly 17 000. I didn't think that soccer was by any means a major sport in North America yet when compared to football, baseball, basketball, and well...I thought hockey. But outside of Canada and the hockey belt in the US, it looks like that may be the case. Teams like Phoenix and Washington have been averaging around 12-13 000 fans per game in the past few years, and St. Louis attendance last year was dreadful. So why, despite all the efforts of the NHL to increase popularity, are we not selling out, or at least getting closer? If you ask me, there is something the NHL needs to try in order to increase popularity and exposure; lower tickets prices.
I'm sure it won't fly well with the teams (owners, players, management - everybody), but the NHL needs to lower ticket prices across the board. The current prices are just too high for a lot of people. As an example, in Canada the three major junior leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL) have ticket prices between $10 and $25 per game, and get great crowds. My hometown of Medicine Hat is a city of about 60 000 people, with a 4006 seat rink. The WHL team there (Medicine Hat Tigers) have ticket prices between about $10 and $15, and have sold out over 200 straight games. They have over 3500 season ticket holders and a waiting list of over 2500 more people who want them. They could easily sell out 6000 per game, which is 10% of the city. Would people still buy tickets like that if they were $60-$80? Not a chance. While junior hockey is a great product (it really is awesome to watch), it just isn't worth that kind of money to most people, even in Canada.
Flip back to the NHL now, and you will find ticket prices varying anywhere from $35 (in Edmonton anyway - where I am living now) to more than $300. Teams in Canada can get away with this, because lets face it, we love hockey (and it is pro, unlike Junior). But why would somebody in say Phoenix (talking "fringe fans" here - there are some real hockey fans in Phoenix) where the Coyotes play, pay that much to watch a game they don't understand or care much about? Especially when they could go watch something like a Phoenix Suns NBA basketball game and get better seats for either cheaper or the same price (Coyotes tickets range from $11 to $300 - of course not that many at $11 and they aren't great seats. Suns basketball ranges from $10 to $221 on Ticket-master - excluding court level seating which is much higher). There might be the odd person who would go and sit in the cheap seats at a Coyotes game rather than at the basketball game, but not many. And the Coyotes attendance records confirm that for me. However; if the Coyotes offered those $300 seats for say $75 (lower bowl, great seats), and the cheaper seats for even as low as $5, they may get some more takers and get closer to filling the rink. And for those who aren't sold on the Coyotes vs. Suns argument, consider that for the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, tickets start at $25, and are also available for $40, $67, and so on up to $370. And people in that area care a lot about football, so they are willing to pay that kind of money for something they are interested in. So if there is a Cardinals game and a Coyotes game on the same day, how many people in Phoenix are going to choose hockey over football?
The simple fact about this is that a lot of people are indifferent to hockey in a lot of NHL cities. And why would somebody pay that kind of money on something they are indifferent to when they could spend it on something like NBA basketball or NFL football, that they have grown up watching and love? And I bet that a lot of people in Phoenix would rather spend $80 on one Cardinals ticket, than on four Coyotes tickets. The NHL needs to convince these people that hockey is a game worth watching, and almost "steal" fans from other sports. The only way they can do that by having them watch the game, and enjoy it. But they won't watch the game if they don't want to shell out the money for tickets (yes there is TV - which is another issue), so to me it seems reasonable that the only way to fix the problem is provide tickets at a price people are willing to buy. The Coyotes need to provide ticket prices that cause fans in Phoenix to come to their game over the other alternatives.
But hopefully after a while people WOULD be willing to pay something similar to the current ticket prices for NHL games. Hopefully they will start watching hockey (because they can go to the games for cheap) and get hooked, and then the league could slowly (very slowly) start raising prices again. I like to compare it to myself when I started golfing as a kid. Golf courses offer very low prices for junior golfers, prices that the kids with summer jobs can afford to pay easily. So the kids start playing golf, and if they are like me, they love it. Then, as they get older and up into their 20's, the prices they pay for green fees go up significantly. At my home course junior memberships are $250, and adult memberships are about $1000. But the problem is I’m hooked on golf now, they got me started at a cheap price, and then once I decided I liked it they jacked up the price on me - and I still pay it because I love the product. This is what the NHL needs to do, get people watching first and then worry about the massive profits.
There is a problem though with lowering ticket prices, and it is basically what I just said above; the NHL (players, owners - everybody) will need to take a hit in the pocketbook (at least temporarily) to make the plan work. The owners need to pay the players salaries, but without the ticket money they obviously have less money to do it with. So there is only one solution. Slash salaries along with the owner’s profits (if they have any). The players sure as heck are not going to be happy about it, who would be? But if the NHL decided lower ticket prices was how they were going to try and attract fans it would be the only thing they could do. And while I am not an expert on the CBA, I do believe that it allows the league to trim all salaries by a percentage based on league revenues. So if revenues dropped because of lower tickets prices, wouldn’t that mean that the league would be allowed to cut salaries? (Maybe there is something in the CBA that prevents this - but this is my basic understanding of it, someone please correct me if I am wrong).
The issue though of having to slash salaries brings up another argument. Is it really ticket prices that are the problem? Or are the ticket prices a result of inflated salaries? Either way the ticket prices become the eventual issue, and the salary question is for another time. Thoughts?