Fans are Key for Survival

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Updated: January 14, 2014
NLSHL Fan Support | Newfoundland Hockey Talk

There’s no denying that building fan support in the Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League (NLSHL) is a major challenge for the teams involved.  Take a trip to any rink when there’s a senior game taking place and you’ll find hundreds (yes hundreds) of empty seats.

Looking back several years ago when Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador (HNL) picked Mile One in St. John’s and the Pepsi Centre in Corner Brook as venues for the Herder Memorial Trophy, a clear signal was delivered at that time.  The Pepsi Centre in Corner Brook was practically empty.  In fact, it was an embarrassment for both the league and HNL especially after the teams competed in the Herder would have sold out at their respective arenas.

Fans at that point sent a clear message during the championship had sent a clear message at that point.  The future of hockey and fan support was not necessarily a given.  Despite HNL trying to promote this as the provincial championship and saying it was a good thing for hockey, they ignored the outcry from the organizations and more importantly, ignored the outcry from the fans that this was unacceptable.

Putting the Herder Memorial Championship at these locations and this was something that should have been known well in advance.  All the signals existed well before the playoffs and teams were starting to recognize that revenues at the gate were on the decline.

While some have indicated that this is simply the newest cycle in the Newfoundland Senior League and that fan support will eventually return that it’s just a matter of time.  Those thinking this way are somewhat misguided and misinformed of the fragile condition that exists right now across the senior ranks.

History is not on the side of the teams or the league surviving if we look back at the hay day of senior hockey just 30 years ago.  Teams like the Mariners, Capitals, Jets, Flyers and Royals consistently sold out and had standing room only.  Hockey was transformed during that time and while fans were treated to some of the best entertainment value around, as player salaries increased and teams was forced to spend more to compete; it eventually resulted in the league folding and fans being left scratching their heads in bewilderment.

Fast forward to the new NLSHL and we’re seeing a similar thing happening right now.  Teams are now a 12-month operation.  They have budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and they operate more like a professional sports league than a senior hockey league.  Fans are seeing ticket costs rising and are pushing back as they see little entertainment value for the money they spend.

There is nothing to make the teams “family friendly” or “fan friendly”.  There is no engagement at the arenas other than someone selling tickets to raise money to keep the team running.  There is the constant yelling “50-50” to sell more tickets to raise money.  All this to pay the player’s salaries, fund the drinking in the dressing room and provide a group of men one last chance to do something great in the game we all love.

What’s does this mean for the teams?

It’s a very simple matter of economics.  Teams are seeing their revenues dropping at the gates.  Even in some of the most successful organizations they are seeing a 5-10% drop in ticket sales while others have seen a drop as much as 40%.

Going to a game of hockey is not a matter of spending a few dollars, it has quickly become an expensive night to watch mediocre hockey without any fan engagement.  Don’t believe that this is true?

A pair of tickets to a NLSHL game will cost you from $26-$28.  Throw in 2 cups of hot chocolate to warm you up before the game you’re staring at another $5.  Purchase your tickets on the goods being peddled and you’re out another $5.  Buy your 50-50 tickets and you’re out another $5.  Don’t forget the two plates of fries that will set you back $10.  If you want a beer (or two) you can add another $10. That brings the total cost over $60.

The declining numbers at the gates for the games should be the wake-up call for all the teams.  Understandably it does cost money to operate and to pay the players.  But your fans are your customers.  Why not do something to keep them coming back again and again?  You have to realize that these same fans are not idiots.  They know what goes on behind the scenes, they are well aware of where some of the money is going.

Fans lose interest when they hear about the dozens of beer made available in the dressing room.  Fans lose interest when they hear rumours of what each player is supposedly being paid to play in the league.  Fans lose interest when they know no matter how poorly their team performs they will make the playoffs.  Fans lose interest when they realize that the rules are so strict that a player cannot even drop the gloves and have a good tilt.

Yes, you can argue that things in hockey are changing.  The perks given to players and the salaries are justified.  You can also argue that fighting is no longer a part of the game and that you’ll never see the return of the physical part of the game return.

How many of you remember that great move that a player made to go around the defense or that nifty tic-tac-toe play?  How many people talk about that bone crushing check that resulted in a great tilt between two warriors at centre ice?

Teams better discover how to build excitement for the fans and how to engage them on a much different level if they want to survive.  The Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League better find a way to engage fans and make some changes to make the league survive.

We are at a pinnacle right now here in the province and as much as everyone wants to avoid this whole thing, senior hockey is at a fragile state.  Teams cannot continue to operate 12 months a year on the backs of a few volunteers.  Teams cannot continue to operate throughout the season in the red and raise money to pay their debts in the summer.  It’s not good business sense.

The solution is in the fans and until they do what is right to bring the fans back into the arenas, senior hockey may again be a thing of the past in Newfoundland.

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