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New Jersey Devils Theme Nights in 2017-18 was Mostly Successful in Attendance

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Not only did the New Jersey Devils have better overall official attendance in 2017-18, but thirteen out of their fifteen theme nights or games with promotions were official sellouts. This post takes a closer look at last year’s promotional schedule, offers some caveats to the success, takes a closer look at the two that disappointed, and guesses what we may see in 2018-19.

Vancouver Canucks v New Jersey Devils
Hockey Fights Cancer Night and 12 other theme nights/promotions for the Devils last season were a total success as they were official sellouts.

As with most professional sports teams, the New Jersey Devils have incorporated various kinds of promotions in their regular season schedule. Some were giveaways. Some were more for community outreach. Some were in line with the rest of the National Hockey League. Some were entirely the choice of the Devils organization. All of them are done with some kind of event to help make the game mean a little bit more or different than just a game - and, of course, help sell the game. Now that last season is well in the books, I am pleased to point out that the Devils’ promotional schedule from last season was quite successful. Almost entirely successful.

Way back in January, Alex wrote about how the Devils’ attendance was improved in 2017-18 thanks largely to a more successful and watchable hockey team. Then, the Devils’ average attendance was 15,190 or 92% of official capacity. According to the figures at Hockey-Reference, that held up through the remainder of the season with a final average attendance of 15,200, which is just above 92% (92.05%, to be more precise). In May, Mike wrote how this was a turnaround after five straight seasons of a downward trend in attendance. Not that the 2017-18 Devils were world beaters, but it should not surprise many that a team that was good enough to win plenty of games was a better draw than a crummy squad set to finish with great lottery odds (see: 2016-17). The atmosphere at the Rock was more exciting as the Devils provided the fans plenty to get excited about. At a minimum, this feeling should carry over into the beginning of 2018-19. What the team will do will determine if they can maintain that.

In any case, this uptick in official attendance numbers obviously carried into the team’s promotional schedule. The Devils’ confusing list of theme nights included a video highlighting 11 and their press release highlighting 11 - with some differences. Combining the give-away and actual theme nights (I’m counting Opening Day and Fan Appreciation Night), there were 15 total home games with some kind of public promotion scheduled. The marketing and promotions department sought out to make these nights work as all of them were either on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday - and most of them were on those latter three days. Those days tend to do better at the gate since their end-of-week and weekend days, the Devils figured on providing some additional incentive for fans to come to the Rock.

Promotional Success...

As a whole, they absolutely did. The 15 theme nights with promotions yielded official attendances totaling 242,627. That’s an average of 16,175 per promo night for an average percent of total capacity of 97.95%. Thirteen of those 15 games were official sellouts with the current capacity number of 16,514 (Aside: Current number? Yes, the arena opened with a capacity of 17,625 for the Devils. The organization decided to modify what they actually counted for attendance capacity. Probably luxury boxes and such.) Some of these theme nights absolutely helped the numbers given some of the non-local opponents that sold out. For example, WWE Night on November 9 was against Edmonton and that night was an official sellout - which is especially impressive as it came two days after the Devils’ worst drawing crowd of the season of 12,317 against St. Louis. For another example, the return of Star Wars Night helped make the December 8 against Columbus a sellout. While they had favorable days of the week, it did not hurt that games against Vancouver (November 24, Hockey Fights Cancer Night), Buffalo (December 29, Brodeur mini-stick giveaway) Las Vegas (March 4, Brian Boyle mini-bobblehead giveaway), and Tampa Bay (March 24, Marcus Johansson mini-bobblehead giveaway). These opponents may have their own appeal, but they are not necessarily locks to fill up the Rock without some help. The theme nights appeared to help them; and as a total group, they were mostly successful at helping attendance numbers.

In comparison, the 26 home games without a promo led to 380,613 attending for an average of 14,638, or an average percent of total capacity of 88.65%. On the surface, the promotional games blew the non-promotional games out of the water from an attendance standpoint. At first glance, it would not surprise me if the Devils decided to have more of them in 2018-19.

...But Not Quite a Definitive Success

However, there are caveats. Again, eleven of the fifteen theme nights took place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, which are easier to draw fans than, say, Tuesdays. On top of that, the theme nights were mostly against opponents with something of value. Only two nights had to carry some bad teams (Vancouver, Buffalo) and, again, those were on some favorable dates given their proximity to holidays. Local opponents were involved in four of them, which also helped: two against Philadelphia and two against the Islanders. The Devils sold out three of those four (more on the exception in a bit); and one of the three was a mortal lock to be a sellout as February 24 against the Isles was also Elias’ Number Retirement Ceremony. That helped the promo cause and overall number.

The biggest caveat is these are all official attendance numbers. I strongly suspect this is all based on tickets sold as opposed to actual people in the stands. There were certainly some near-full and full houses last season. But some of those games where 16,514 was listed came on nights where problem sections (e.g. the upper side sections by the corners on bench side) still had notable gaps of people. I get that tickets bought still go to the gate and it is still revenue. But the numbers paint a rosier picture than what I recall of the Rock. The Devils are hardly the only team to do this and there’s a larger, on-going argument on what should and should not be counted. I hope for the sake of their own business metrics that they have a more accurate number to work with instead of just looking at the theme nights and go “Great, job done. Let’s not change anything.” Unfortunately, I can only work with what was recorded.

The Two Theme Nights that Did Not Officially Sellout

Getting back to the results of the promotional schedule, only two nights could really be seen as disappointments. After all, with 13 out of 15 being official sell outs, the two that did not stick out.

The first was Rock the Rock Night on January 25 against Nashville. This was promoted by the GRAMMY Music Experience, which is at the Prudential Center. On paper, this made sense. New Jersey has given a lot to the world of music from rock to rap to R & B to jazz to hardcore to metal to third-wave ska to punk to pop-punk to pop and much, much more. Nashville is synonymous with country and its nickname is Music City. Nashville was also good and the Devils were also good; different degrees of good, but good nonetheless. And it was the Devils’ final home game before a break in the schedule for the All Star Weekend. In practice, this Thursday night affair did not do so well at the gate. 14,039 was reported; which made for an percentage of total capacity of 85%. I do not know how well the museum is doing, but it did not excite the people to come to the Rock. I do not think this promo will return.

The other night was the first home game after that one: Pride Night on February 1. This theme night was the worst last season from an attendance standpoint. 13,906 for a 80% capacity. While far from the worst the Devils would do at the Rock in 2017-18 and even in that month, that theme night performance stuck out like a sore thumb. Even Rock the Rock Night performed better. While plenty of rainbow-colored Devils logo t-shirts were sold, the number of people there was, well, not a lot. However, context is needed to fully appreciate the disappointment of this number.

The Devils had their first Pride Night in the 2016-17 season. After some initial dates, it ended up settling on February 27 against Montreal. I like, support, and appreciate the meaning of Pride Night. But this was not expected to be a success. The game was on a Monday night. By that point in the season, the Devils were bad, they were hard to watch, and they had nothing to play for. The re-build was on - and it was clear that it was not the “fun” kind of bad hockey. Montreal fans are traditionally good at travelling to support their team, but the Monday night made that difficult for others. Oh, and the Devils went into the game losing. I think Pride Night is a great event to have, but there was no way this was drawing a large crowd then. And it didn’t with an official attendance of 13,270. Sure, other games did worse, but it was not that great of number. By the way, the Devils lost the game in overtime and blew two leads in the process so it was not like the Devils made a great case to anyone to watch them again (see, the rest of 2016-17).

Someone in management probably saw that 13,270 number and figured that needed to be better. I am convinced that the marketing, sales, and other relevant departments got together to figure out how to make Pride Night more of a success in 2017-18. They placed it on a Thursday, which is not super-ideal but an improvement over Monday. They held towards the beginning of the month and not further to help mitigate any “lame duck status” than if the Devils ended up having nothing to play for in 2017-18. Instead of just any opponent, they put it on a night where the Devils would play Philadelphia. Yes, the Philadelphia Flyers. They are the Second Rate Rivals, but also the Devils’ second rival team. As a local rival of a fanbase that gets excited every season to be let down by the orange and black, these games tend to draw big crowds to the Rock. It even got to the point where, like with Our Hated Rivals, the Devils charge more for their games than most others. The organization had to hope the Devils would be better in 2017-18. They lucked out as they absolutely were. From Taylor Hall showing off his Hart to Nico Hischier and Will Butcher being rookie sensations to the team as a whole competing in a lot of games, management lucked out huge with the Devils’ turnaround in watch-ability and performance. On top of that, the rivalry game had some meaning as both teams were battling for playoff position at that point of the season. All signs were positive that Pride Night 2018 would provide a better crowd, both intentionally and unintentionally.

It technically did yield a bigger crowd. By just 636 people. That’s it. Really. Not even an increase of four figures. The Devils put this theme night on a better day, against better opponent (a rivalry!); and had the fortune of the Devils being good, watchable on February 1 as well as the game meant something beyond just a rivalry matchup. And the attendance improved by a whopping 4% of capacity. That’s also assuming the official attendance number is even accurate to reality, which it probably is not. Given the effort the Devils presumably put in to make this a more successful night, that 13,906 is deflating to see. What more could the Devils have done?

I’m going to go to my go-to answer for anything with Devils attendance: ticket prices, probably. The Devils tier their game prices based on opponent. In theory, this makes sense - charge more for rivalry games, charge less for less attractive matchups like Devils vs. Calgary. Knowing that the Devils charge a lot more for tickets against Our Hated Rivals and Philly, I am inclined to think that pricing may have hurt the cause - theme night or otherwise. While the official numbers show sellout for games against Our Hated Rivals in 2017-18, the Rock was not nearly as full as it was in years past in those games. The hatred didn’t change. Meaning did not go away, as the last one in April absolutely meant a lot to the Devils (it put them on the cusp of clinching a playoff spot). But the ticket prices have continued to rise to a point where the Devils may have priced themselves too high for that rivalry to be a legit full house. Given that Philly games are on a similar class, I would suggest adjusting that for the benefit of all such games - much less for the sake of the promotion.

I will point out that the day of the week was not as helpful either. Thursdays, while better than Mondays or Tuesdays, are not as favorable days as Fridays or Saturdays. Considering all home games last season, Monday games (3) averaged 14,515 fans for 87.9% capacity and Tuesday games (7) average 14,201 fans for 86% capacity. Thursdays beat them both with an average of 14,787 for 89.5% capacity. But Friday games (7) were a bit better with an average of 14,902 for 90.2% capacity and Saturday games (9) were near sell-outs with an average of 16,360 for 99% capacity. For a more specific example, the Devils did sell out against Philadelphia on another theme night (which also had a giveaway too) on January 13 - which was a Saturday. The point is that the day of the week may not have been that much of an improvement than what it was in 2016-17. That factor likely contributed to why the attendance was not that much better.

It could be argued that the draw was not so good just because. I understand that may not be so convincing given that 13 out of 15 theme nights sold out last season. But Rock the Rock Night had a Thursday day, a good-on-paper match-up, and an enjoyable Devils team. That night drew less than 100 people more than Pride Night. Related to that, the Devils’ games against Washington, a quality divisional opponent, in Newark were on a Friday (!) and a Thursday and neither were big crowds despite other games on those days being more successful in attendance. It’s possible that some nights, things just do not work out at the gate. It happens.

Could there be a larger issue at play about the theme night? Possibly, but I’m doubtful despite writing so many words about it. I do not think there’s a real aversion to the concept. I mean, there was an improvement in attendance in 2017-18. There was not a drop. It was not a really significant one given what the Devils likely did to boost attendance, but it was a gain. Further, there has only been two of them with the Devils and it started during one of the worst Devils seasons in recent memory. It is really hasty to conclude that Pride Night does or does not work with the Devils.

More importantly, Pride Night is not likely to go anywhere. Based on last season, all NHL teams had a Pride Night or a similarly named night between February and March last season. The whole league supports the You Can Play Project, which has been a driver for a lot of these events and other positive outreaches in sports. You’d have to be naive such an outreach is not helpful given that the targeted communities have not been historically welcomed in public, much less in sports. Even if it is a bunch of small gestures, it’s a positive - nobody is being harmed by it. To that end, Pride Night may be on the level of Hockey Fights Cancer night, another night where every team will do something with it as part of a league-wide outreach that really has no downside. So I do not think it is not going away time soon - which, again, I think is good because it is a theme night based on outreach and that’s worth supporting in of itself. (Aside: Will the Devils also bring back their various heritage nights in the same vein?) That said, I would not surprised if the Devils try to make their third go at it result in a better day of the week and/or combine it with a giveaway (Say what you want, but mini-bobbleheads were a hit last season) to further help it draw a larger crowd. It’s not like they can improve on the opponent; Our Hated Rivals will come to the Rock on a Monday in April 2019 and a Thursday in January 2019. So, in all likelihood, Pride Night will be back. I just hope more people go to the Rock on that night.

Early Guesses for 2018-19’s Promo Schedule

Overall, it is clear to me that the Devils set up their theme nights and promotions up for success last season and largely hit it. Only two out of fifteen were not sellouts, and it would behoove the organization to take a closer look at those. It would behoove them to take a closer look in general. Again, I’m basing this on officially reported attendance numbers that were likely better than reality. If the Devils have the “real” number in the building, then they should use that guide them as far as what needs to be tweaked and whether certain theme nights were successful on their own or successful due to the day of the week or opponent. Given that the Devils know the NHL schedule and they’re rolling out more information on tickets - partial plan deposits are now being accepted - I would like to think the Devils have already begun to look into this and make their plans for this coming season.

The actual 2018-19 promotional schedule will likely come in the middle of September, as with last season and prior seasons. In the meantime, let’s guess what they’ll do. I expect the appreciation nights (fire, law, military) to return as well as Hockey Fights Cancer Night and Pride Night. The 2017-18 Hockey Fights Cancer Night was on Black Friday, November 24. Based on that, I wouldn’t be shocked if 2018-19’s Hockey Fights Cancer Night for New Jersey is on November 23 against the Isles. As for Pride Night, there are a lot of home games in February. If the Devils want to set it up for more success than last season, then they can pick and choose between February 9, 10, and 17 for weekend home games. Or if they’re really insistent on a weekday, February 19 (a Tuesday) against Pittsburgh may be the least bad option.

As for other promotions, Star Wars Night has been a big hit - it’s not my thing, but some people are really into Star Wars and it’s a big movie series - so I suspect that will be back for a fourth year. . WWE Night did good business too (a sell out on a Thursday in November against Edmonton) and I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if they will have any events at the Rock coming up so I don’t know if they’ll do something together again. That could be replaced with a different kind of theme.

I’m sure there will be some giveaways at some point last season. Bobbleheads appear to be the way to go. Those have always been popular from what I’ve seen and how some fans pay out for them if they miss the giveaway. Three such giveaways would be consistent with last season and there are some players that will draw interest. Nico Hischier definitely should have one. Will Butcher is a good option. Miles Wood may be gaining in popularity. There are good options. Throw in something new and there’s your schedule.

I will say that 2018-19 provides some more challenges with respect to the business of attendance. While the Devils faithful are plenty excited with how things turned out last season, if the Devils fall flat out of the gate, then I could see the excitement sink like a stone. Performance aside, the fans will have to wait to see them in person. The team is going to open up the season in Europe after playing all of one preseason game at the Rock. That “Opening Night” at the Rock will be a Thursday (October 11) night game against Washington, who really did not draw well last season. It is not as favorable as a 2 PM start on a Saturday. The Devils’ Fan Appreciation Night is traditionally their last home game of the season - which is on a Monday night against Our Hated Rivals on April 1. There isn’t a total-lock for a sellout like Elias’ number retirement for this coming season. Many of the team’s weekend games are matinees that may not really need a theme night (day?) for a boost. And there are fewer Friday games (7 to 4) and more Monday nights (3 to 6), which is also not favorable. We shall see whether the Devils will continue to set up their promotional games on dates to help ensure sellouts rather than boosting weaker days in the schedule.

Tomorrow: Wood and money. But not WoodMoney. Thanks for reading.