On Attendance Woes

Last night's game between the Senators and Panthers in Florida garnered plenty of attention. Not for what happened on ice (that was pretty boring) but because of what wasn't happening in the stands.

Last night's game in Sunrise, Florida saw the Panthers host the Senators in front of a team record-low 7,311 fans. Those watching the game on TV would suggest that was a generous total.

This is nothing new when the Senators visit the Sunshine State to play the Panthers; the scoreboard feed game was sparsely attended as have many others.

This is not to criticize those who actually attended the game. Every club has it's committed fans, those willing to buy season tickets, merchandise, concessions, flex packs and cable packages and who try to generate some life in a mostly-empty building watching a fairly boring game. There are fans like this throughout the Sunbelt, as avid as you'll find. In certain cities though, like Sunrise, they must be worried. North of the border there should be a lot of sympathy. But there isn't. It doesn't help that there's still a fair amount of dislike for NHL teams being placed in southern cities, two decades after that expansion took place. However, these fans aren't much different from fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City or Ottawa and Edmonton before ownership and arena woes were resolved. With Ottawa's financial issues becoming more publicized over the past year, those old fears have resurfaced in certain pockets of the fan base.

It's not to criticize the current Panthers ownership group either. Giving away tickets might resolve the optics of an empty bowl, but is hard to justify to your paying customers. They have a lot of catching up to do, for an organization that's been in the league for 20 years, but it's a start at least.

The recipe is relatively simple: win.

Win and fans will come. Win and fans will commit. Win and fans will talk about your games and bleed your colours.

Winning has turned around the Penguins franchise and secured a new rink. Winning turned around the Hawks. The only problem is only one team can win and financially, things are stacked against smaller market teams. Most teams aren't trying to win. Most teams are trying to be competitive, to make the playoffs. For all but a few teams in the league, the ultimate prize is playoff home dates not Lord Stanley's mug. Part of why the playoff streak matters in Detroit is because they still remember the "Dead Things" era of the 1980s, when the Ilitchs gave away cars at each home game to get fans in the stands. Given the Detroit's injuries last season, it made sense to move some veteran assets for younger options or at least to not make desperate trades in hopes of making the playoffs. But that's what the Wings did. Once you don't make it, you don't know how long it will take to make it bad.

The fact that some of the league's current model franchises have gone through prolonged periods of attendance troubles should make us pause as fans before mocking teams like Florida. But there are times we should complain about the attendance record of opposition franchises. The league has spent years propping up the Arizona franchise and that impacts every team and fan. While it's a terrible situation for Glendale and Coyotes fans, it's certainly a situation that should have league-wide interest. Sometimes talking about another team's attendance woes is more than taking a shot at an opponent. Sometimes it's in your team's best interest that you notice and care.

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