Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why the NHL will succeed in Atlanta

I wrote this essay as part of a debate over at HFboards about the viability of certain hockey markets. In the long run I am generally optimistic about the NHL in the sunbelt. I think that more than anything hockey in the southland needs two things: 1) competitive teams 2) time to develop local tradition.

One key advantage for the franchise here in Atlanta is the massive number of people who live here. The Thrashers don't need for everybody to become a fan, they just need enough people to love hockey.

Let's assume for a moment that 15,000 season ticket holders is goal of a NHL franchise. If you have that many STH you're going to sell out most of your games. What fraction of the local metro area would have to purchase season tickets to reach that goal of 15,000? Below are the fractions for each market. (I divided the 2006 metro population by 15,000)

Season Ticket Subscription Rate by Metro area

1/341 Toronto
1/242 Montreal
1/141 Vancouver
1/075 Ottawa
1/072 Calgary
1/069 Edmonton
(and for comparison's sake)
1/048 Quebec
1/046 Winnipeg
1/046 Hamilton

When I look at the numbers for Canada I'm absolutely convinced that the Toronto market could sustain a 2nd NHL franchise--much more so than the Quebec, Winnipeg or Hamilton (unless Hamilton can draw significant support from the Toronto Metro area).

USA Hockey Homeland
1/634 Chicago
1/418 New City (to support 3 NHL teams)
1/388 Philadelphia
1/298 Detroit
1/297 Boston
1/212 Minneapolis
1/186 St. Louis
1/161 Denver
1/158 Pittsburgh
1/115 Columbus
1/076 Buffalo

Hockey tickets have sold both well and poorly at various times in almost all of these markets over the decades. In the long term the Buffalo market may not be able to sustain that franchise unless it continues to draw strong local support from the local population and some fans from Ontario on a regular basis.

In theory Chicago should be able to support 2 NHL teams. If not for gross mismanagement that franchise would be rolling in ticket sale $$ every year given the size of that market and the history of hockey there.

People wonder if NYC metro can support three NHL teams, but if you look at the season ticket subscription rate it suggests that the can support three teams.

USA non-traditional Hockey Area
1/440 Dallas
1/432 Los Angeles (to support two NHL teams)
1/398 San Francisco-San Jose
1/364 Miami
1/353 Washington
1/343 Atlanta
1/269 Phoenix
1/180 Tampa-St. Pete
1/097 Nashville
1/066 Raleigh-Durham

The long term outlook in most of these southern markets is good when you consider that they need a much smaller fraction of their market's population to buy season tickets compared to say small Canadian cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa. There is no sound reason to abandon these markets.

In fact, the evidence suggests that when these cities have playoff caliber teams tickets sell in these markets. But some of these cities like Atlanta have see a lot of bad hockey, while the city of Dallas has had a playoff team nearly every year. Tampa struggled through a decade of terrible teams and low attendance but now that they are competitive you see solid ticket sales.

In the long run I have some doubts about Nashville and Raleigh being able to support their franchises. They have passionate and loyal fans--I just worry that they will never enough of those fans in their building. For example, notice that Raleigh needs a season ticket subscriber rate comparable to that of Calgary and Edmonton. I seriously doubt we will see that in the long run.

Based purely on market size and general patterns of support in the tradition and non-traditional areas of the USA, I would submit that three cities are in long term danger: Buffalo, Nashville and Raleigh. Places most suitable for addition NHL franchises based purely on market size: Toronto, Seattle, Houston. (Please note that I'm not advocating any city losing their team, I'm just saying which markets have the great risk associated with their long term survival.

Back to my original point above. Atlanta needs a sustained period of competitive on-ice hockey and time to develop its own tradition and fan loyalty. Original Six markets like Detroit, Boston, Chicago and New York have had hockey for three or more generations. When I was a kid up north I remember talking to people who had watched Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull or Bobby Orr play for their favorite team. Atlanta needs time for the sport to put down roots and kids to grow up going to games with their parents or watching it on television. Thirty years from now you might be telling some bright eyed kid about the exploits of Marian Hossa or Ilya Kovalchuk who have long since retired and had their number hung from the rafters of whatever arena the team is playing in 2037.

Hockey will never replace college football or basketball in this region--but it doesn't have to succeed. Hockey just needs time to establish its own place in the local sports landscape--that and a few playoff wins would help too.


  • Some interesting research. I was wondering how long you would consider a reasonable time to develop a fan base? The Flames had 8 years to grow in the Atlanta area before moving to Calgary.

    I'd probably add Phoenix to another of the "long-term danger" markets as well. Eventually the novelty WILL wear off and the team will probably move to another 'non-traditional' market.

    As much as people say that the NHL should expand to Hamilton, it'll never happen. Neither the Leafs nor the Sabres will put up with encroachment from another team on their "territory".

    Seattle is another interesting scenario, as they were actually awarded a franchise for the 1974-75 season, but nothing ever materialized. It would be an interesting rivalry for the Canucks after a few years. Maybe even more so than Edmonton or Calgary.

    By Anonymous Rod, at 3:16 PM  

  • In the case of the Flames their numbers were both above and below the average for US franchises while they were here. My understanding is the the Flames never once advanced in the playoffs though they did qualify several times. The Thrashers lost in their first playoff shot.

    A similiar problem exists so far in Phoenix which has had a couple of above average regular season clubs that were eliminated in the first round as I recall.

    The NHL is sports product and like any other product people are more likely to be drawn to it if they get a chance to see it and experience at that product at its best. My personal opinion is that a nice run to the Conference Finals might do wonders for both the Atlanta and Phoenix markets in terms of solidifying their fan base.

    The playoffs have a way of really getting loyal fans wound up and attracting new fans. I first got turned on to hockey when the Red Wings played the Oilers in Campbell Conference Finals way back in the mid 1980s. I was hungry for more hockey after that experience.

    re: Seattle I think it could a great NHL market especially now that the Sonics are leaving. You've got an opening during the winter, especially once the NFL season is completed.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 5:54 PM  

  • Good post. A couple of things you need to consider. Businesses purchase a large number of season tickets, and such ancillary expenditures are highly correlated to expansions and recessions.

    Secondly, without youth hockey expanding, it's difficult to convince adults to convert their sport-watching.

    Buffalo is a team which until recently was in danger (at one point was without an owner), and they're a small market team with a big stress put on profitability, which may mean an inferior product, with infrequent short term spending sprees. A few years of losing will not help their cause.

    By Anonymous PT, at 7:55 PM  

  • The thing is, teams don't need to fill the seats, they need to have more people sitting at home watching on TV! TV $$ rules sports.

    By Blogger LJTunes, at 8:30 AM  

  • PT:

    Of course, you're correct about corporate sales. I've actually been working on a much more complex model that uses the local GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to measure the size of the economy rather than simply population size. I also look at competition for the sports $ from other NFL, NBA, MLB, CFL franchises. But it is hard to explain everything. Broadly speaking the population numbers correlate will with the total wealth in a metro region so it is reasonable proxy measure.

    As far as youth hockey goes I would agree that it helps grow fans but that is very LONG TERM strategy. When I walk around the NHL arenas I see few kids because the tickets cost a lot--there are more kids at the ECHL games here.

    At the end of the day you need adults to lay out the cash for games. I can tell you that I have meet a number of current ATL season ticket holders who were born and raised in the south and came to game and fell in love with it. The problem is how do you find/figure out who those folks are and get them inside the door with out giving away tickets?

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 11:58 AM  

  • re: ljtunes.

    TV money hasn't not been an important revenus source in most USA makets for the NHL for many years. That's just the reality, people will pay their money to attend games but few Americans watch it on TV. Even in Detroit it doesn't draw big numbers until the playoffs.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 11:59 AM  

  • I'm not sure why you mentioned basketball as something that hockey will have to compete with, no one in the south gives a rat's ass about basketball. Maybe the black population but they don't go to the games. White males, who dominate the ticket buying for sports, support the Braves and whatever college football team they support. The Braves draw over 2.5 million fans a year and will continue to do so for the next several years. Even last year when the team was out of it by July, they still drew over 2.5 million fans. They are on pace for 2.7 million fans this year even though they haven't been that great on the field. Luckily for the Thrashers whenever I am up in Atlanta I do see that they are developing that same sort of fan base. It will never replace college football nor the Braves, but if they win some championships, get deep into the playoffs, and have some good players for a long time playing for them, then they will build a tradition similiar to the Braves and UGA or Tech.

    By Blogger Scott, at 2:53 PM  

  • The Hawks have their fans:

    Season attendance NHL and NBA
    Thrashers: 665,000
    Hawks: 639,000

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 5:15 PM  

  • How many of those Hawks ticket buyers were there to see the Hawks? I have noticed that the percentage of fans wearing the other team's sweater at Thrasher games have gone way down from the fist season.

    By Blogger LJTunes, at 7:33 PM  

  • re: Hawks.

    The only game I attended there were many Pistons jerseys in the stands. Still when're 3rd worst team in the NBA and you move 600,000 tickets that's not all bad.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 8:51 PM  

  • Very well stated but in reference to Buffalo, a lot of support comes from Canada.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:45 AM  

  • Very well thought and well researched article. I found your article while looking for some stats about how much harder it is to run a team in a small market team like Buffalo or Edmonton than to run a large market team even if the large market team is in a non traditional market.

    I'd like it. But, its buried 26 pages into garth's blog on .

    your numbers make me realize how much the Sabres depend on the Southern Ontario market and scares me about the future of the Sabres if homeland security ever makes the border to much of a pain in the but to cross.

    By Anonymous mrpurple, at 11:06 PM  

  • Well one thing Buffalo has going for it as a NHL market is lack of competition except for the Bills. It also benefits from relatively weak college sports programs in Western NY as well (compared to say markets that have to go up against very popular Big 10, SEC, ACC teams).

    I would be really curious to know how many of the Sabres STH are from the Ontario side.

    By Blogger The Falconer, at 1:51 AM  

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