Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Canaries in the coal mine

The National Hockey League world is shocked - shocked, I tell you - that the Columbus Blue Jackets season ticket sales are off by 24.5% against last season's figure.

[Permit this brief digression: THIS IS NOT NEW NEWS.  Does the fact that the Dispatch reported it yesterday, with a story in today's edition - only eight weeks after Matt Wagner shared the information on July 14, including a quote from CBJ president Mike Priest - make it newsworthy?  Or does it demonstrate that the hockey world really doesn't pay close attention to what's happening in Columbus?]

What surprises me about the whole matter is the way in which it is reported.  In most every report/Tweet I've read from "mainstream" hockey media, the loss of 2,000-ish season ticket equivalents is the responsibility of the team - that their disappointing dip in 2009-2010 is totally on their shoulders.

I cry foul.

Suggesting that the team operates in a vacuum, with no effect from the larger economic environment facing the State of Ohio, represents the height of sporting insularity.  If you turn on the TV in this state for five minutes during this election season, you'll have one nasty fact ingrained in you head: Ohio has lost 400,000 jobs since January 2007.  400,000 jobs.  That's a lot of people without work.  That's a lot of people leaving the state.  That's a lot of people who aren't buying a lot of things, hockey tickets included.  I'm not going to let my partisan colors fly freely on this blog - it's not the place to do so - but the point is clear.  Ohio is in tough shape.

I'm also hearing that this trouble is carrying through to Ohio's other sporting teams.  The Blue Jackets sent their players to Cincinnati and Cleveland to drum up enthusiasm for the forthcoming hockey season at Reds and Indians games, and look at the less-than-overflow crowd in attendance at Great American Ballpark.  Sure, Cleveland is having a rough year, but Cincinnati is in the midst of a playoff-caliber year...and still can't put butts in the seats!

In no way am I faulting the Blue Jackets for doing these visits.  In fact, I applaud them for trying to widen the fan base into other sports and other parts of Ohio.  But the visuals don't lie - sports fan attendance is down in Ohio.  I don't have attendance figures for football, but while the Bengals game was on TV, viewers were treated to commercials with players exhorting them to buy tickets.  And Sports Time Ohio is rife with ads for Browns tickets.  (And does anyone wonder how the Cavaliers will do with ticket sales now that LeBron has taken his talents to South Beach?  In a metropolitan area where unemployment is worse than Columbus?)

The only major sports running counter to this trend appear to be the Ohio State Buckeyes football games.  Keep in mind that not only are the Buckeyes the second-ranked team in country right now, which makes their games more desirable to the average fan, they pretty much sell out for every game they play regardless of the condition of the team.  I mean, they sold out their John Cooper-coached games.  Nice position to be in!

I will grant that blaming the economy alone for the CBJ ticket struggles is just as naive as blaming the team's performance alone.  You have to take them both together, which Greg Wyshinski of Yahoo! Sports' Puck Daddy blog did with his excellent post on the ticket numbers and the reasons behind them.  My takeaway from the piece is: A high-performing on-ice team can perhaps overcome a poor economy (yet the playoff-bound Colorado Avalanche drew an average of roughly 1,500 fewer per game than the CBJ last season, and the cinderella Phoenix Coyotes...we've heard enough stories about their issues to recite them by heart), but a middling-to-poor performing team has a much harder road to hoe.

I still maintain that the landscape of professional sports is just now being affected by the ongoing challenges in the economy.  Remember, eight teams - nearly one-third of the NHL - had worse average attendance than the Blue Jackets last season.  There is good reason to think that the Jackets will slip a couple of notches, but I'm going to predict that they will not be the lowest attendance team in the NHL...not be a long shot.

These bottom-tier attendance teams are pro sports' canaries in the coal mine.  They're proving that the economic fundamentals of the go-go 1990's and 2000's are changing, and dramatically.  This will have an increasingly profound effect on the way that teams operate:
  • Expect more "budget" teams.  If the revenues aren't coming in and the ownership pulls back on the blank checks, you have to cut back on salaries.  Ask the Carolina Hurricanes.  That the CBJ management and ownership still is willing to expand their salary budget considering their weakened financial position represents an incredibly positive statement about their dedication to turning this franchise in the right direction.  
  • Expect teams to leave poorer-performing communities where the economic fundamentals are weak to those where they are better - or at least to where the built-in fan base for the sport is stronger (And we wonder why the NHL isn't tamping down talk of putting teams in Winnipeg and Quebec?).  
  • Expect the collective bargaining agreement discussions to be messy - and not just in the NHL, but in all sports.  You know that there's talk of an National Football League lockout, right?  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars lost thousands of season ticket holders.
I'll leave you with one last thought.  I was fortunate enough to grab a week's vacation close to Fort Myers, Florida a little less than a month ago - a reasonably significant community on the southern end of the Tampa Bay Lightning's operating territory.  Not only did I not see a thing about the Lightning or their genius-like new ownership and management in the print and broadcast media, I didn't even see a billboard.  I didn't see a thing promoting that team or the idea of getting tickets.

What I did see was a lot of closed businesses. When I listened to the radio, I heard car dealer hucksters begging for people who had been turned down for an auto loan due to "the times we're experiencing in Florida" to come in because they could still help people figure out how to buy a car.  And I saw more "bank owned" or "foreclosure" signs than I could count.  Tell me that these folks are going to buy hockey tickets.  Or football tickets.  Or baseball tickets.  No, they're going to be buying gas and groceries.  Just like so many are in Ohio, Tennessee, California and beyond.  

The world of sports is entering a period of wrenching change.  The economics of the 2010's can't sustain the sporting cultures of the past 20 years.  Good sports towns with reasonably diverse and relatively stable economic bases like Columbus have a fighting chance to win back the shrinking customer base.  I'm not sure every other city in the NHL can say the same.

Columbus Blue Jackets individual game tickets go on sale to the general public on Friday morning.  I've said before that the best way to support the team is to buy tickets, and I'll say that again.  And again.  And again.  Buy game tickets.  Go to the games.  Enjoy yourself.  Root on a rising NHL team.  It's a lot of fun and may actually contribute to getting the Blue Jackets out of the coal mine and onto solid financial footing.  


  1. The reason it is news, sad to say, is the source it came from. This time it wasn't a "blogger", but "mainstream media".

  2. DBJ -
    I hate to be this nebulous, but I know within the last week I saw an article, in the Dispatch I believe, that stated that season ticket purchases are down in the NFL. If they are down in the NFL (the No Fun League), they are going to be down everywhere. BTW, sorry for the rant, but the NFL is really starting to crack me up. I mean, in hockey, things get settled. You drop the gloves, get it over with, go to the penalty box, and its done. Oooh. He threw a football at me!! Wah, wah, call him for a penalty. Sheesh. Football would be a much better sport if they allowed fighting. Rant complete.

  3. Errata -
    Sigh. Day late and a dollar short again. Matt at the Cannon was all over this. But I read you first!

  4. The best way for a sports franchise to get people in the seats is to having a winning team. The exceptions (like the NHL's Maple Leafs) are few & far between.
    Columbus' attendance should have really been lower over the last few years, but the fans kept coming out despite a poor win-loss record. Kudos to the fans & to the Jackets marketing dept. (I live closer to Pitt, but I see more marketing for Columbus. I go to more Jackets games. The games and fans at Nationwide are just more fun.)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.