Living in Canada, it is no secret that hockey is the country’s go-to sport. As soon as the snow falls and the temperature drops below freezing, the garden hoses and shovels come out to make backyard rinks. Most afternoons, the community rinks fill up with kids and adults alike, playing hours on end of pick-up hockey. Every Christmas break ends up being a two-week long celebration of hockey, with pick-up games being played all day long. There are hundreds of minor leagues (and just as many adult leagues) , many of which play year-round. People get together throughout the week to watch their team play for the win in the NHL. For many people, hockey is a way of life. It is no surprise that game after game, NHL teams in Canada (and most Northern states) fill their arenas to the rafters with fans. In Montreal, it’s very difficult to walk around town without seeing a few Canadiens logos, whether it’s a fan’s jersey or a flag outside of a restaurant. The passion and adoration for the game begins at an early age, many stating that they fell in love with it the first time they laced up their skates.
Unfortunately, many people aren’t introduced to the game in that manner. A lot of professional hockey teams are located in states that do not have “Canadian” winters. There is no ice or snow, and thus no outdoor hockey; it is not a common sport that the local people can play. After school, kids go and play baseball, football, or basketball at the park. It is no surprise that these sports, when played professionally, capture the appeal and interest of the local population. These are the sports that people play, and therefore can relate to. It is hard to get interested in a sport that is inaccessible. According to the 2011-2012 NHL attendance records (courtesy of espn.com), four of the bottom five teams in average attendance were from southern states, (Phoenix, Dallas, Columbus, and Anaheim). The bottom 3 in attendance percentage were Columbus (80.8%), Dallas (76.8%) and Phoenix (72.5%). The Phoenix Coyotes had an average of 11,956 fans at their games, whereas the Montreal Canadiens (with an attendance percentage of 100%) had an average of 21,273. The cities, with similar populations, have a very different level of interest in hockey. According to arenamaps.com, Montreal has around 43 hockey arenas in their city, while Phoenix has only six.
These statistics are no coincidence. There are less people watching hockey in the southern states simply because fewer people get a chance to actually play the game. Teams have tried promoting the local team by hosting events to meet the players, lowering ticket prices, having contests and so on. These are all great tactics, and there is a lot of credit owed to the marketing groups for these teams. However, that alone is not enough. Focus should be on promoting the game of hockey itself, not just the local team. Playing and watching baseball, football, and basketball is extremely popular in the states, even at the College or amateur levels (much like hockey in Canada). Children go to the local park and try to imitate their favourite players, or join a team and try to feel the same camaraderie that their local professional team does. You simply do not have the same connection to a sport you cannot play.
To give you a personal example, I have never played cricket in my life. I have watched it on occasion on television (and once live at a local park in England), but I have never played the game. There is little interest in the sport in my area, so there are no cricket pitches around. If a professional cricket team moved and began playing in my area, chances are I would not go to many games. I may go to one or two games for the experience, but without playing the sport I would have little interest. I have no relationship with the game, so I do not feel the need to go pay good money to watch it.
In my opinion, the best strategy to raise attendance records would be to promote the game of hockey itself. Hockey needs to become accessible to citizens, both young and old. The community needs to create minor hockey leagues, have affordable pick-up hockey games at the local rink, have fundraisers to make the purchase of hockey equipment affordable, create late-night adult hockey leagues, and so on. In the example about cricket mentioned above, I said I had no connection to the game, so I felt no need to go watch it. However, if they began giving cricket clinics for people, or started creating local pick-up games or leagues in the community, then maybe I would have an interest in playing the game. In addition, as that interest in playing the game grows, so would my interest in watching the professional team. I now have a connection to the game; I have played it, and I now understand the fundamentals and the appeal of cricket. I understand the skill it takes the play the game, giving me a greater appreciation for the skill needed to play at the professional level. The chances of me going to watch professional cricket is much higher than before I had played.
It is difficult to get the ball rolling for something like this, primarily because hockey is an expensive sport (especially in the Southern states). In the North, we have the option to build relatively inexpensive outdoor rinks for everyone to use. They do no have that luxury in the South. It costs money to build arenas, it costs money to maintain arenas, and it costs money to buy the equipment. There is no guarantee that building an arena will mean people will start playing hockey. It is one of those vicious circles that seem to show up often in life: you need an arena for people to play hockey,but you need people to play hockey in order to rationalize building an arena. It is usually a multi-million dollar investment which may not necessarily pay off. In my opinion, the way to increase interest in the sport is to start small, whether it means having free hockey once a week at the local arena, organizing ball-hockey tournaments, or have free ice hockey clinics with professional players or coaches for minor league teams. It is important to make hockey accessible for people. If people get the chance to play hockey and are able to relate and understand the beautiful game of hockey, then interest and popularity for the professional teams will rise. More people will go to games, simply because more people appreciate the game for what it is.