A constant peripheral concern of Devils fans over the years has been the team’s ability to draw fans on a nightly basis during the regular season. Since the Devils arrived in New Jersey some 35 years ago, they’ve never been a team that packs the building night-in and night-out. Whether because the crowdedness of the market, the nature of traveling around New Jersey, or any other number of factors, a sold-out building generally remains only a few-times-a-year occurrence around these parts. For the sake of the health of the franchise and also the atmosphere in the building for home games, there is always interest in how the team is able to attract fans to the arena each year, and perhaps this season will be the one to reverse a recent downward trend.
While the Devils haven’t always packed the arena, they have at least tended to draw decent-sized crowds since they arrived in Newark in 2007. Those numbers have been sliding a bit over the past half decade, though. The team’s first three seasons at the Prudential Center, they consistently drew over 15,500 each year. Not a massive number that would put them near the top of the league, but still a relatively solid number in New Jersey. After a hiccup with the disastrous John McLean season in 2010-11 dropped them below 15,000 for the first time in Newark, the team rebounded with a great 2011-12 and attendance climbed back toward the previous levels, followed by an huge boom in the lockout-shortened post-Cup-run 2013 season. Since that point, though, the team has seen the numbers slowly erode again over five years of missed playoffs, landing in the mid-14,000s last season — their lowest number since moving to Jersey’s largest city.
Perhaps due to the scars still remaining from the team’s apparent near-move in the mid-90’s or perhaps just because in modern professional sports, any perceived lack of support can yield criticism and potentially stoke relocation rumors, waning attendance numbers have a way of generating a little bit of anxiety. It’s not something fans should have to think about but its something people inevitably are going to worry about when the seats start to show up empty.
This trend over the past several years likely (or obviously) has a lot to do with the Devils’ on-ice performance. If we remove the spike in the lockout-shortened season, a trend of steady decline shows up over the last five full seasons. And obviously, to an extent, that makes sense. With five years now since the team’s last playoff appearance, there is only so long that fans will keep showing up for mediocrity or worse on the ice. The Devils lowering the capacity for a sellout a couple times over that stretch likely has at least some additional impact on the numbers, but it’s not a stretch to imagine the crowds have shrunk incrementally over the past half-decade of struggles.
The 2017-18 Devils have come roaring out of the gate though, and the feeling around the team is one that fans haven’t experienced in quite some time in New Jersey. This goes beyond just winning six out of seven to start the season, too. This team is young, fast, and exciting right now. The wave of young talent that is currently hitting New Jersey hasn’t been seen since the team was at the very top of the NHL heap at the turn of the century. With first-overall pick Nico Hischier arriving in New Jersey this summer and a host of other young Devils like Will Butcher, Pavel Zacha, and Jesper Bratt making an early impact on the ice, hope in the future is starting to emerge in the fanbase.
Even if the team doesn’t maintain this early success, can that excitement in the future still get butts in the seats? The way this team has played thus far this season is certainly a far cry from the, um, we’ll say dry brand of hockey employed in Newark the previous five, but will that ultimately be enough to reverse the recent trend? People generally prefer 5-4 barn-burners over 2-1 slogs and there is a buzz around this team that hasn’t been there in years past, but can it last without the winning ways we’ve seen in the first two weeks?
I think for at least this season, a more exciting product on the ice will be something that pulls people back to the Prudential Center. If the team has some struggles here and there, I think there will be a renewed energy at the arena throughout this season regardless, even if the team isn’t ultimately playoff caliber. I don’t know that it gets them into the mid-15,000s like the early days of the Rock yet, but I think people will recognize that the team is starting to turn a corner and make their way back to the arena this season.
Now, to maintain that momentum going forward, success will obviously have to follow at some point, but I think for now, the team just being competitive and fun will help revive some of the energy in the Prudential Center. And hey, if they want to keep winning pretty much every game like they have been, that probably wouldn’t hurt, either. A full arena is good for everyone, and perhaps the team can take a step toward making that more of a reality. When the building is full, the atmosphere is better, the team’s finances are healthier, and the games are just a little more fun, so let’s hope that’s where this rejuvenated Devils team is taking us. Now if you will all excuse me, I have to go see if I can duck out of work early to make the puck drop at tonight’s game.