Listening to TSN’s Bob McKenzie on the Team 990 “Morning Show” today, hosts Denis Casavant, Elliott Price and
Shaun Starr got him talking about the small crowd last night in Columbus for the Canadiens-Blue Jackets game (which was announced at 10,466, well below the capacity of 17,206 and even their average so far this season of under 12,000). The team has had its lowest ever regular season crowd this year (9,802 for their Oct. 20 game against Anaheim) and are one of four NHL teams playing to early season crowds below 80 percent of their capacity, the others being Phoenix, Dallas and Tampa Bay.
Cassavant asked McKenzie if the league was worried about the Blue Jackets attendance (adding that Commissioner Gary Bettman never professes to be worried about anything).
McKenzie replied that the league’s public stance has been less concerned about the attendance numbers and more focused on the commitment of owners to continue paying the bills when their ticket revenue goes south (no pun intended…well, maybe a little). “And right now,” McKenzie said, “the McConnell family who owns the team haven’t indicated they’re prepared to throw in the towel.”
Last season, the Blue Jackets averaged 15,416, 85% capacity, 22nd in the league. They’ve trended downward every season but one since 2001-02, their second season.
Just how much the Blue Jackets owners care about the team became a hot question on Monday when their center Derick Brassard was quoted by CKAC saying, “Our owner died two years ago and his son took over. I think our new owner does not like hockey much…When
the team picture was taken, he was not there.”
He added that the Blue Jackets shouldn’t be lumped in with the other three struggling teams because his club’s problem stemmed from the fact that they don’t play well at home.
That certainly didn’t go over well in Columbus, and a late night phone call to Brassard from his agent Alan Walsh made for a sleepless night. Aaron Portzline, blogging for the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday wrote, “He looked pale this morning after the morning skate, and Blue Jackets GM
Scott Howson offered that he was ‘rattled.'”
An upset Brassard addressed the media at the skate, saying, among other things, “It’s not something I said that I would take back, but it’s something I
would do with other words. I didn’t express myself
well, and the Montreal media … they tried to get a headline of me.”
He then phoned John P. McConnell. who inherited the club from his father John P. McConnell. “For what it’s worth, McConnell
played rec league hockey in Columbus until he had back surgery a few
years ago,” Portzline wrote today, and McConnell issued a statement saying, “”Derick is a fine young man. I told him the only
thing he has to worry about
is playing well.”
And with a first period power play goal against the Habs (video), Brossard followed John R.’s advice and made amends. One suspects he wasn’t rattled any longer.
This all may seem like a whole lot of not very much (unless you’re Derick Brassard or the Blue Jackets brass), but the attendance issues in Columbus and elsewhere have to be an ongoing concern for the NHL, regardless of how they do or don’t comment on it. One can’t say the league was unaware of the potential for this problem: When the U.S. economy soured in the summer of 2008, the league said they expected some consequences for their business down the road.
Even the current problems in Columbus haven’t caught the team by surprise. In September, team president Mike Priest admitted he expected some low crowds in the early going, even as low as 8.500.
Columbus specifically has some problems the others don’t. Unlike Tampa Bay, Dallas and Phoenix, they are not a big market. As Derek Zona points out on his blog Copper and Blue, Columbus is “the 24th-largest market in the NHL, and its rank of 21st out of 24 U.S.
markets. It’s small, economically-speaking, compared to even places
like Pittsburgh (27% larger), St. Louis (43% larger), and Minneapolis
(115% larger). Overall entertainment dollars aren’t as plentiful in
Columbus, and those dollars certainly aren’t going to chase terrible
teams, and over the last ten years, the Blue Jackets can’t be considered
Which brings us to another point McKenzie made on Team 990, namely, that when a team starts losing (or in the Blue Jackets case, almost never wins), there comes a point when the fans start to abandon a team and they may not come back even if the team reverses its fortunes.
“You get charged NHL prices to watch a team that you know hasn’t been very good and hasn’t had any tangible success if you use playoffs as a barometer so people are going to stop going,” he said. And once they stop, the building becomes emptier, attending a game becomes less special and the momentum swings the wrong way. McKenzie pointed to the Avalanche as a team whose fortunes sunk and even though they’ve turned things around, they can’t get back to the level they once enjoyed where they sold out every game.
The ongoing economic problems nationwide are still a major factor in this equation, but just as important is that, as McKenzie stated, “The ticket buying public, they’re not foolish.”