Attendance for the Ottawa Senators hit an all-time low earlier this month. Since crowd size first started being tracked by the NHL in 1997, the lowest attendance at a Sens game before 2017 was 13,323 — a mid-November game against the Florida Panthers.
Since then, the record has been shattered numerous times, including their recent game against the St. Louis Blues where only 9,204 people were at the Canadian Tire Centre to witness the Sens’ third consecutive loss.
It wasn’t just a single game of silence either, as declining attendance has been a pervasive issue for the Sens since 2016. The team’s season ticket base has declined to roughly 3,500 sales, while the average attendance has declined each year. No amount of changes to the in-game experience have drawn people back in, and multiple executives have parted ways after failing to meet targets.
There are plenty of factors for why attendance is at an all-time low — the government can’t give tickets to public servants, the arena’s in the middle of nowhere, the Ottawa Redblacks have provided competition in the sports entertainment market... the list goes on. Naturally, the conversation shifts to Ottawa’s stability as an NHL-supporting market. If the fans won’t continue to show up, could this spell the end of the Senators?
This worry is further charged by locally-loathed owner Eugene Melnyk, who in 2017 infamously threatened to move the team if attendance continued to plummet. At the same time, markets like Québec City and Houston are clamouring to add a team, with owners lined up on both sides. Could the Senators really pick up and move? Is the franchise on the verge of disaster?
No. Not in the slightest. The Ottawa Senators are not moving.
Even if Melnyk does everything in his power to try and move the team, the NHL’s relocation process is rigorous. It requires approval from the Board of Governors, the group of owners and other top executives whose interest is to continue growing the NHL’s value as a league. Getting through the Board of Governors is the key to relocating a franchise, and as outlined below, there are numerous reasons why the Sens won’t be moving anytime soon.
It Violates The NHL’s Constitution
For every relocation the NHL has completed over the past 20 years, there have been several other failed attempts. In 2007, the NHL blocked a possible relocation of the Nashville Predators to Hamilton, and in 2009 a similar situation happened where they shut down a possible move from Phoenix to Hamilton. Both times they were found to be in violation of the NHL’s constitution — a set of rules in place to make sure the NHL and its owners are operating fairly.
Section 36.5 of the constitution outlines the criteria that need to be met for a franchise to relocate (shoutout to commenter spartacat_12 for beating me to the punch). It’s a lot of legal speak, but here are some key points:
36.5. In determining whether to consent to the transfer of a Member Club’s franchise to a different city or borough persuant to Section 4.2 of the Constitution, each Member Club shall be guided by the following considerations:
a) Whether the Club in question is financially viable in its present location and, if not, whether there is a reasonable prospect, based on any of the considerations set forth in subsections (b) through (j) below, or for any other reason, that it could become financially viable there, either under its present ownership or under new ownership.
b) The extent to which the fans have historically supported the Club in its present location.
c) The extent to which the Club has historically operated profitably or at a loss in its present location.
In other terms, if the team can be profitable and attract large crowds, it’s in the clear to stay.
Starting with attendance, it’s no secret that the Sens can attract large crowds. Only in the last few seasons has it become an issue due to the multitude of previously listed factors. Some are outside the team’s control in the short-term, and others are within their grasp. Even around the NHL, many other Canadian markets are seeing declines in attendance.
Either way, it’s clear that Ottawa fans know how to fill an arena. It’s just been a minute.
In terms of profitability, the team’s revenue and overall value has slipped in the last few years following the same trend as attendance. Prior to that, however, the Senators were right in line with the average growth of the NHL. LeBreton Flats offers a huge opportunity to bring back some of the lost growth.
More from the constitution:
v) the extent to which the ownership or management of the Club has contributed to any circumstances which might otherwise demonstrate a need to transfer the Club to a new location.
This particular point is so on the nose for Ottawa’s situation that it’s hilarious. Not only have a significant chunk of diehard fans been boycotting games as part of the #MelnykOut movement, but the poor performance of the on-ice roster has taken away the interest of the more casual fanbase. To say that ownership and management has contributed to the team’s decline in attendance would be an understatement.
Ottawa Is A Viable NHL Market
This point deserves extra emphasis — attendance issues aside, hockey is just meant to be in Ottawa. The capital of Canada deserves to represent the country’s national sport, having deep ties to the game pre-dating the NHL. Since the team’s re-inception in the 90s, they’ve cultivated a storied history and altered the culture of the city.
The team also has a major opportunity right in front of them to boost their value in LeBreton Flats. The situation is a lot more up in the air since Melnyk couldn’t reach a deal with his business partner, but there’s still a prime piece of land in downtown Ottawa waiting for an arena to be built. They’re the only NHL franchise in Canada without a downtown arena, and finally getting that project off the ground will only further cement them as a world-class sports franchise.
It’s also worth comparing the Senators to the rest of the NHL. The Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers are both in very weak financial situations, drawing small crowds and also dealing unstable ownership. Despite all this, Gary Bettman and the NHL have done plenty just to keep those teams afloat, instead of moving ahead with relocation. It’s clearly not in the Board of Governors’ interest to be moving teams around.
The End of the Relocation Era
The last time the NHL relocated a franchise was eight years ago, when the Atlanta Thrashers moved north of the border to Winnipeg. Since then, the league has trended in a completely different direction: expansion. The addition of the Vegas Golden Knights has been extremely successful for the league, collecting their entrance fee of $500 million. Seattle will also be joining the NHL as its 32nd franchise at an even higher cost of $650 million.
These are lucrative deals for the NHL. As long as there are prospective billionaire owners willing to pay the fee, it will be their preferred route over relocation, aligning with their goal to maximize the value of the league.
What Happens From Here?
For the time being, any rumours of relocation appear to be strictly rumours. For all we know, Melnyk hasn’t done anything to try and relocate the team past his comments from two years ago.
As for Melnyk’s ownership of the team, his financial rope appears to be getting shorter by the day. A sale of the team could be right around the corner, which would be great news to bringing more stable ownership to a franchise that desperately needs it.
Whichever new ownership group ends up proceeding Melnyk, rest assured that they won’t be moving the franchise either. Even DCDLS, the biggest known negotiator which includes many business tycoons rooted in Quebec, has said that they’d be committed to keeping the team in Ottawa. The opportunity to build on LeBreton Flats is so lucrative that moving the team elsewhere would be a massive missed opportunity.
As for us fans, rest assured that the NHL has our backs on this one. Moving the Senators would not only be nonsense financially, but it would violate the NHL’s constitution. Hockey and Ottawa are meant to be together — don’t let Melnyk convince you otherwise.