This season in New Jersey was one to remember for many Devils fans. It of course ended in somewhat disappointing fashion with the team falling in the first round to the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning, but this was a season that I suspect many will look back on with great fondness. It obviously did not reach the levels of success that the Devils have previously reached in their heyday. For a team with three Stanley Cups and five finals appearances over the previous 25 years, a first-round exit doesn’t seem like much to write home about. But this team resonated with the fanbase this season because it felt like the beginning of something. Winning a single playoff game is not the end goal for any team, but the 2017-18 season was a reawakening of sorts for this fanbase.
The Devils had been a team stagnating for a number of years leading up to this season, and people were understandably starting to tune out of the games, even if they might have been keeping tabs on the team. Five straight years of playoff misses will do that to a fanbase. Both attendance and ratings sagged heavily in 2016-17 with the team finally admitting that a full rebuild was necessary and the team closing the season in a complete freefall, losing 21 of their final 24 games. The final attendance number for last season ended up being the lowest since the team moved to the Prudential Center.
This season was a turning point after that bottoming out, though. For the first time in a while, real buzz returned to the Devils this season — at least as much buzz as a hockey team in this area is liable to receive without a very deep playoff run. With an exciting team, breakout rookies, and one of the best players in the world making a case for MVP, this was one of the most exciting Devils seasons in a while, even without being a real threat to win the Cup. The numbers, both in attendance and ratings reflect a fanbase that was ready to re-engage if given a reason to.
At the Prudential Center, attendance bounced back after last season’s low point with the team posting their highest attendance since 2013-14 and their highest percent capacity number since the lockout-shortened 2013 season in which the team was coming off a Cup Final appearance (according to yearly attendance numbers from ESPN.com). The Devils are still not a team that sells out the arena on a nightly basis, but they reversed a downward trend from the past five seasons significantly, with the team drawing over 600 more fans a night in Newark than they did in 2016-17. And speaking from a completely personal, anecdotal perspective, the arena was a lot more fun to be in this season and the crowds felt truly energized. If the Devils can build on this momentum with a successful follow-up season in 2018-19, perhaps they can push toward some of the previous full-season highs from the late-2000s (though the change in official capacity makes apples to apples comparisons tricky).
On the TV side, the Devils ended up being one of the biggest ratings gainers in the entire league this season. The nature of this exciting season for New Jersey, juxtaposed against last year’s dud means that this makes logical sense, but its a good sign regardless. The Devils saw a 50% bump in their ratings over last season, according to the Sports Business Journal, giving them the third-highest increase in local viewers over last season. The rating number of 0.59 doesn’t seem overly impressive in a vacuum, but ratings numbers in the hypercompetitive New York market will rarely look anything like smaller, more closely knit markets like Buffalo or Pittsburgh, even if raw viewers are comparable in some cases. Plus, with three teams in the same market splitting up the hockey viewers, that will suppress the individual ratings as well. Regardless, the Devils saw a big bump in viewership and even seem to be creeping up on the Rangers’ number at 0.85.
So overall, this season was a true success for the players and the fans but it was also a significant success from a business perspective for the organization. The team returned to relevance and fans returned to the arena. With another good season for the Devils, these numbers can hopefully advance further with even bigger crowds and more energy at the Rock and more fans getting excited in front of their TVs. As we head into the offseason, maintaining this momentum by building an even more successful 2018-19 team will be the main objective for Ray Shero and his staff.