If You Build it, They (Might) Come

03
Feb

The Florida Panthers have been one of the biggest stories during the first half of the 2015-16 NHL season. General Manager Dale Tallon made an effort in recent years to surround his core of young talent with aging stars like Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo to provide some stability while his top picks develop.

And the results have been fantastic. To the surprise of many, they currently have the sixth-most points in the entire league – ahead of teams like the Rangers, Lightning, and Penguins in the Eastern Conference. However, they also happen to have the sixth worst attendance in the entire league. I can’t say for certain, but I’m guessing Panthers’ management was hoping for a little more support for a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations at this point in the season.

attendance-points

The above chart shows Florida’s performance has been well above average, although their attendance sits near the bottom. Another interesting point from that graph: there seems to be almost no correlation between performance and attendance amongst NHL teams so far this season.

The relatively flat line-of-best-fit through the middle of the graph indicates that a team with few wins is just as likely to draw large crowds as a team with many wins.1

Not even the highly marketable star-power of players like Jagr in Florida or John Tavares in New York has been enough to keep their teams from struggling to sell tickets. This is an unusual trend across sports as many teams rely on their big-name players to fill their stadiums and arenas.

But if wins and stars don’t fill seats in the NHL, then what does? Well for starters, a logo that people recognize can go a long way. A logo alone won’t quite get the job done, although a strong brand associated with that logo probably will.

When I decided to plot the correlation between a team’s net worth and their attendance by percentage this season, a much clearer picture emerged:

attendance-worth

The clear upward trajectory of this plot has an r value of .54, indicating a moderately strong correlation between an organization’s value and their ability to sell tickets. When outliers such as Toronto, Montreal, and New York are taken out of the plot, the value of r increases even more to .66.

To some this might seem like a no-brainer: teams that sell more tickets will earn more money and thus be worth more as a franchise. It must be noted, however, that a team’s net worth takes years (sometimes decades) to build up, and having one good season of ticket sales is not nearly enough to boost the value of teams like Vancouver and Philadelphia.

Rather, a team’s net worth serves as an excellent indicator of the strength of that team’s brand and identity within the world of sports. So the correlation between net worth and attendance is really more representative of the relationship between the strength of a team’s brand and their ability to capitalize on it.

I also think an examination of this graph does a terrific job of showing which teams are still not meeting their potential in terms of ticket revenue. The New York Rangers and their lofty billion-dollar valuation stand out as one of the few teams with established brands and winning records to not have truly absurd attendance numbers (see: Boston, Chicago).

It also highlights the teams that have made the most out of a smaller market and weaker brand, like the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota’s affection for hockey is not lost on the Wild, and their sales department has made sure to capitalize despite a disappointing start to the season.

This is all to remind you to keep the empty seats at Panthers games in perspective when watching Jagr suit up for his next game in Florida. Winning games or even having the most entertaining player in the league can only do so much when it comes to filling an arena.


  1. the value of r to measure correlation between points and attendance % is just .168, indicating almost no relationship 

About the author: David Tews

David is a sport management student at UMass Amherst who one day hopes to work in athlete representation. Keep up to date with his writing and other interesting sports news by following him on Twitter via @DavidTews13.

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