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A Third Straight Drop in Attendance for the New Jersey Devils

As the New Jersey Devils prepare for Fan Appreciation Week, the organization has clinched a dubious distinction: the second-lowest total and average attendance since the team moved to Newark.

Nice statue. Nice fireworks. Shame about the attendance.
Nice statue. Nice fireworks. Shame about the attendance.
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Because this site is on the radar of the New Jersey Devils, I get press releases directly from the team in my email inbox. Recently, I received one hyping up what the team intends to do for Fan Appreciation Week.  Rather than limiting it to a day, the Devils all sorts of giveaways planned for their next three home games.  Here's a quick round up:

Three trips will be given away at each of the next three games.  On April 5 against Buffalo, a fan will win a Devils Road Trip, presumably for the next season.  On April 7 against Tampa Bay, a fan will a trip to the 2017 NHL All Star Game in Los Angeles.  On April 9 against Toronto, a fan will win a trip to the 2016 NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas. There will be other giveaways, but those are three of the big four that they're doing.

The membership numbers of season ticket holders will be used to draw prizes at random on the scoreboard during each game. So STHs may get prizes of their own - assuming they're in attendance and pay attention.

There will be Fan Fests in Championship Plaza before each game.

There will be social media based giveaways through the team's, mascot's, and equipment manager's Twitter accounts.

On April 9, the O.C.C. Chopper Giveaway that's been hyped up for a bit on recent broadcasts will be given away.  Fans can still enter the drawing through the team's website. Entries close on April 5, 11:59 PM EDT. I'm not into motorcycles but it looks spiffy.  You can see it in person on the concourse at any of the next three games.

Everybody in attendance on April 9 will receive a free T-shirt. On the concourse, fans can also take pictures with the life-size bobbleheads of Adam Henrique, Cory Schneider, and Mike Cammalleri.  The Martin Brodeur Statue, the Salute, will also be present for pictures as well.

That's all well and good.  Especially for a team that may have exceeded preseason expectations of being terrible, but still ended up not being a good team at all.  It's certainly more than what they've done in the past, which was a Fan Appreciation Day.  That was good, but stretching it out over these last three games makes sense.  I'm sure there's a hope that it will attract some additional people to the game.

However, there's a problem in the press release right at the beginning. I'm hoping whoever wrote it up made a typo or has access to different numbers than the official report.  Here it is, emphasis mine:

After one of the highest-attended seasons in franchise history, with close to 700,000 patrons through Prudential Center’s gates, the New Jersey Devils are ready to show their gratitude to the fans who provide home ice advantage night in and night out. Devils Fan Appreciation Week presented by Prudential, including games on April 5 vs. Buffalo, April 7 vs. Tampa Bay and April 9 vs. Toronto, will feature hundreds of prizes, giveaways and experiences as the organization says "Thank you, Jersey."

No way have the Devils drawn close to 700,000 people.  In fact, the Devils' average and total attendance is guaranteed to be lower than last season's and will end up being one of the lowest attended seasons in the short history of the Prudential Center.

Say what you want about ESPN, but they do have one thing right: an archive of team attendance that goes back to the 2000-01. Those numbers there (and elsewhere, I know HockeyDB has it too) are based on what the team reports as who attended.  That is a questionable practice in of itself as the team would be more likely to provide a higher number; usually "tickets sold" over number of people in the stands.  With that in mind, here's a chart of the Devils total attendance, average attendance, percent capacity filled, and their respective ranks in the NHL during their entire stay at the Prudential Center.

Season GP Total Att. Rank Avg. Att. Rank PC Capacity % Filled
2007-08 41 638144 23 15564 23 17625 88.3%
2008-09 41 647397 23 15790 23 17625 89.6%
2009-10 41 636975 20 15535 20 17625 88.1%
2010-11 41 605803 25 14775 25 17625 83.8%
2011-12 41 631258 24 15396 24 17625 87.4%
2013 24 410739 20 17114 20 17625 97.1%
2013-14 41 625570 24 15257 24 16592 92.0%
2014-15 41 622783 26 15189 26 16592 91.5%
2015-16 38 571206 26 15031 26 16514 91.0%

And here's the total and average attendance in graph form over these nine seasons:

2007-16 Devils Attendance

The Devils have never been close to a total attendance of 700,000 in any season at the Prudential Center, never mind this one. The 2015-16 Devils will draw fewer people than any season except for the 2010-11 season. That was a season where the team fell apart.  This one was a slower burn, but the point remains, the 2015-16 Devils will have a third straight drop in attendance.

By the way, the outlier here is that lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. It was a season where football was over in the area by the time the season started, the season was shortened to 24 home games and 24 road games, and all of the games were against opponents within their own conference.  That meant fewer unfamiliar or unfavorable games against the West and more against teams the Devils saw more often.  Despite the spike in attendance, the Devils still ranked in the bottom third of the NHL; as over half of the league reported higher numbers and a 100% or higher capacity.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  The Devils have three more home games. What if they sell out those games? Good question! Given the Devils' announced capacity of 16,514, which is the arena's third capacity change in nine years, three sell outs would mean 49,542 people would attend the next three games.  That would boost the Devils' total attendance to 620,748. The average attendance will rise to 15,140.  Those would still be the second lowest total and average attendance in the team's history in Newark.  That total attendance is still far away from 700,000.  And that's a best case scenario for these next three games. Even with the promotions, will a Tuesday night with Buffalo and a Thursday night with Tampa Bay really bring in the numbers? Especially after it is confirmed that the Devils won't make the playoffs?

How did this happen? Here's a quick month-by-month break down of the home attendance for New Jersey, including the number of home games where the attendance was higher than the current average attendance of 15,032 and the number of announced sellouts this year.

Month GP Total Avg. Over Avg. GP Sellouts
October 6 74783 12464 0 0
November 6 91315 15219 3 3
December 7 104541 14934 3 3
January 5 77666 15533 3 2
February 8 130534 16317 8 6
March 6 92367 15395 5 1

With 15 sellouts and 22 home games that beat the average of around 15,000, I can see some in the office viewing that as a success.  February was an awesome month at the gate; and it should have been. There were six home games against teams within the division including two against Our Hated Rivals on a Tuesday to guard against mid-week games dragging it down.  Edmonton visited but it being the same night Brodeur had his number retired ensured a sell-out. Los Angeles was other non-local and they played on Valentine's Day to another sellout.  2016 proved better than 2015 in attendance and sellouts.  The team's numbers just stunk in October (that Islanders game on Halloween afternoon was the second lowest attended game this season, Nashville on 10/13 was the lowest) and December was a down month (Florida did not draw well in NJ), which helped drag everything down.

Yet, it's not an overall success. Again, total and average attendance went down for the third straight season and 2015-16 is the second lowest-attended season since the team moved to Newark.  I'm not surprised that the average attendance would drop for this season. The team still isn't very good, expectations were low heading into the season after missing the playoffs again, tickets are pricey, and even most casual fans recognize that a "rebuilding" year is code for "don't expect too much." All of that adds up to just a decrease in interest.  As big as the New Jersey/NYC Metropolitan area is, hockey isn't an automatic draw like professional football.  The team has to be good to draw, and even then it's not that high as per the earlier years in this chart and graph.  Still, it was better then than what it is now.

What I'm surprised is that the team seems to think otherwise. Again, look at the start of that press release hyping up their Fan Appreciation Week.  Someone at the Devils thought this was one of the higher-attended seasons for the team and that close to 700,000 attended.  Wrong on both accounts.  I don't know how this drop in attendance affects the overall business.  Clearly, they have an interest in it as they changed the capacity number of the arena for hockey to help their percent capacity stay above 90% for this season.  That may look nice and combined with the current pricing, perhaps revenue isn't as big of an issue. But as long as the team continues to rebuild (read: the product won't be good) and the team continues to nickel-and-dime fans, the next few seasons will likely lead to lower attendance.

Basically, from my perspective, there are three actions the Devils can do to increase attendance.  First is what their hockey operations side of the business is trying to do now: get better.  Second is what I've been bringing up now and again: the ticket prices need to be lower.  Again, this team isn't good and most people don't expect them to be good anytime soon.  Whether the opinion is that the rebuild will take three years or five years, it isn't going to be done by next season.  Making the prices a little lower may entice some additional people to purchase the lesser product the Devils have been putting out.  Increasing them only increases the incentive for them to do something else and/or follow them for less and away from the arena.  The third may be just as important: be honest.  Don't tell me or others in a press release that a season was highly-attended when it wasn't.  Or that they were close to a number that will be missed by a little under 80,000 assuming the next three games sell out.  All it does is give me and maybe other reasons to see if it's true or not and then tell thousands of Devils fans (and fans of other teams) that it's not true.  That's not good for the business.

I do hope that their promotions for the upcoming three days work well. I hope they're received well and the fans, like myself, enjoy it.  I think it's good that they're taking advantage of three straight games at home for the week for such a promotion.   But the attendance has not been good.  It's been worse than last season and it's nothing to triumph in a press release.  Even if it was meant for something else and didn't need to be mentioned.