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Has Surprising Success Fueled Attendance?

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The New Jersey Devils have played significantly better hockey than most anyone expected this year, with some people currently giving the team over an 86% to make the playoffs. Has this success driven up attendance numbers at the Rock?

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Before the season started, as you all know, there were very few people who were predicting positive outcomes for the New Jersey Devils. Even throughout the early parts of the season, many were predicting that the other shoe would fall sooner than later, and I’m sure a lot of fans thought it was possible, I know I did.

Over halfway through the season, however, and the team looks like it has a very good chance to make the playoffs, with one Twitter follow giving them over an 86% chance before the game against Washington, which should only improve that percentage more.

The question I have, then, is how has the team’s success been for attendance? We know that over the last several seasons, with a poor quality of hockey out on the ice, attendance was not the best. Last year, with the team in full retreat mode by this time of the year, the Devils only produced an average of 88% ticket sales per game, meaning that an average of 88% of the seats were purchased for each game. Ask any season ticket holder who was at most of those games, however, and they will easily tell you the actual attendance was a lot less.

In fact, perhaps one thing ESPN does decent with hockey is track stadium attendance. Let’s use their data to showcase the Devils average attendance over the last several years:

So as you can see, the percentage is not always entirely indicative of the stadium capacity. Back in the earlier years of that chart, the sellout was billed as 17,625. After the 2014-15 season, however, they dropped the sellout to 16,592. Where they got rid of a thousand seats who knows, and it certainly didn’t show. The prevailing assumption, at least from my point of view, has to be that the owners wanted better attendance percentages.

I am using the NHL rank based on percentages and not average attendance by pure numbers too because not every arena is created equally. Winnipeg will always be at or near the top in average attendance by percentage, but their arena only holds just over 15,000 people, so to calculate rank based on pure numbers makes no sense. So those ranks are based on percentages. So even in the lockout shortened season when the Devils were averaging over 97% ticket sales per game, they were still 21st in the NHL. Why is that? Because so many teams actually average in at or above 100%. This year, 14 teams are currently averaging 100% or higher stadium capacity per game. Right now, Chicago is averaging 109.7% capacity per game, which is insane. How does that even work? An extra 10% tickets per game are standing room only?

Anyway, what is interesting to me about that chart above is how 2011-12 compared to the year after. During the regular season, the average was not particularly high at only 87.4%. That team was regularly down in the Atlantic Division standings. This was not to mention years of early round exits followed by a terrible 2010-11, so the hype wasn’t there. Then, however, the team makes the Stanley Cup, and the following year, ticket sales boom! I can admit, I bought my season tickets after the Cup run of 2011-12 after spending way too much cash on playoff tickets.

After that 2013 season, however, you see attendance dip once again as the team falls down to the bottom rungs of the NHL in terms of winning. That 2013-14 team had talent, was possession-dominant, and would have made the playoffs if they could have won some shootouts, but the attendance didn’t follow along with it. After that, the whole thing broke down, and you can see the continual drop in average attendance all the way down to the 14,567 average number for last season.

This year, you would expect that number to have improved pretty well right? Let’s see:

As compared to last season, the number looks significantly better. Up over 600 seats per game, and an average percentage that is the best it has been since the sellout number dropped after the 2014-15 season. However, if you compare it to how much the team has improved since last year, I would definitely agree that these attendance numbers still seem to be lagging somewhat. A sellout each night would be too much to expect for sure, but If you told me 95% at this point, I could buy into that.

However, one culprit could also be other sports. With the NFL season not concluding for another two weeks, that could drive attendance down somewhat. It will be interesting to see if attendance spikes somewhat after the Super Bowl when less sports are active.

Of course, if the attendance in 2011-12 versus 2013 tells us anything, maybe the spike in attendance doesn’t come until next season. Maybe more people buy in after they see a full season of this new squad and actually witness a playoff berth. You know full well that if the Devils actually make it to the second season, the Prudential Center will be rocking at full capacity for each and every home playoff game. Maybe the new people who are attending those playoff games end up going for season tickets next year like I did back in 2013. It is all possible.

In the long run, it is too hard to yet tell if sustained success will bring with it sustained attendance numbers. Even in the Prudential Center’s inaugural season, when the Devils were still perennial contenders without question, the average percentage attendance per game was at 88.3% with 15,564 per game. Will a new period of prolonged success generate new fans who fill the seats? That is certainly the hope of the ownership.

For now, however, it will be interesting to see how the attendance looks as the season progresses if the Devils continue to find success and a playoff berth looks imminent. I will certainly keep track, and another article in April should complement this one and tell us a lot. However, what do you think about the team’s attendance numbers right now? Would you expect them to be higher given the play on the ice, or do those numbers make sense to you? If they do make sense, why is that? Do you think prolonged success will help to increase attendance numbers for the Devils over the coming seasons? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.