The Sens home opener was not sold out. It was immediately evident, as empty seats scattered throughout Canadian Tire Centre. More surprising still, a few sections were almost entirely empty in the upper bowl. After a long road trip to start the season, it was disappointing to not to sell out the home opener. Home openers feature giveaways, promotions, and activities designed to draw greater crowds.
18,867 attended the home opener. Two days later the Sens played a Canadian team, the Oilers, in an afternoon affair designed to draw families to the game. The event featured another giveaway and only 18,623 attended. After an emphatic, mid-week road win against new rivals Detroit, the Sens hosted the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have an 8-3 record. They've had a good start to the season, have notable stars, and don't play in Ottawa that often. Only 17,590 showed up. The Sens played a game early on Sunday night against the Sharks - the NHL's best team in October - featuring a lineup of NHL stars, a standout rookie, and players with Ottawa connections, and still it was the same attendance story. Only 17,145 showed up to watch the Ottawa's most recent home game.
That's how many tickets have gone unsold in the first four games. That's a problem. The question remains, why is it happening?
The Alfie/Melnyk Summer of Awful probably has a something to do with it. No one can quantify the impact Alfie's departure had on the fan base. Many are mad at Alfie, but I suspect those who are still show up. Many are mad at Melnyk; maybe some of them aren't coming anymore. Those who were hurt by Alfie for leaving or those who were hurt by the organization not doing everything in its power to bring the long-time captain back, well, they might not be back. They might not be back for a long time.
Ottawa's somewhat erratic schedule probably isn't helping. The long road trip to start the season has been compounded by a slight shift from the standard Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday schedule. In fact, Ottawa only plays three Saturday night games at home all season: two in December and one in April (two of which are against the Leafs). While the Sens play four Saturday home games in December, the team plays at the CTC on Saturday only twice in 2014.
The team's lacklustre start hasn't helped matters. But after the success of the playoffs and the excitement building around this team over the past couple of seasons, I would expect the home opener to be sold-out before the season starts. The Alfie/Melnyk thing hurts, but there is a lot to be excited about with Bobby Ryan. Both Spezza and Karlsson are back. There are reasons to buy tickets.
I get the frustration from fans who want support to be more absolute. Success in the NHL is tied to money and ticket revenue is a large part of that. But I also get fans which are purposely staying away because they were angered by the summer. Sports teams are large organizations. In general, they are not receptive to an individual fan's complaint. Teams with some of the most committed fans, fans who keep coming despite the frustrations of the on-ice or on-field product, often get treated to more frustration. Fans have few productive outlets for their discontent, but the most noticeable is to stop coming to games. Stop buying tickets, merchandise, concessions, and paying for parking. Stop.
In reality, this isn't anything new. Drawing and keeping ticket-buying fans has always been a concern for this franchise. Ottawa is frequently the least-expensive NHL ticket in Canada. Ottawa ranked 15th on Forbes' recent "Most Expensive NHL Teams" list; the team's tickets averaged $137.82. All other Canadian teams finished between first and seventh, with only the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks breaking Canada's dominance.
While Forbes includes premium tickets in their averages, Team Marketing Report's (TMR) Fan Cost Index tries to provide a more balanced approach to the cost of attending a game. While there are problems with the TMR list (not everyone buys alcohol, drinks, food, souvenirs, or pays for parking) it does provide another way to measure Ottawa's relative affordability. The most recent TMR list was released in February. Five of the other Canadian teams finish as top-ten most expensive and all Canadian teams finish above the league average of $354.82 - the Senators finished almost one hundred dollars below the league average at $261.11. This gap reflected Ottawa's decision to lower ticket prices after the lockout. As such, the Sens are the fourth most affordable ticket and game experience.
The decision to slash tickets prices after the lockout is telling. Of the 30 NHL teams, only 3 cut ticket prices after the lockout: New Jersey, Anaheim, and Ottawa. The Devils (-5.5%) and the Ducks (-4.7%) were single-digit cuts; Ottawa (-16.4%) was more than 10% lower (compare to the dreadful Buffalo Sabres who raised their tickets by 26.7% last season). New Jersey made up for the ticket cuts in other ways, and the overall Devil fan experience rose by 11.8%. Other than Ottawa, only Anaheim's overall fan cost decreased after the lockout. However, Ottawa's decrease was still almost ten percent lower than the Ducks.
What does this show? That the Sens organization is at least concerned by attendance figures and fan satisfaction. It begs the question: if the Sens were worried fans wouldn't come back after the lockout in sufficient numbers, what was the organization's plan post-Alfie? Trade for Bobby Ryan and hope for the best? Almost four months later, it doesn't seem to be working.
When will the Sens have their first sell-out of the season? Probably when Montreal comes to town on November 7. Hasn't that always been the fall back plan? To rely on the opposition to supply the crowd?