While Cavs fans might feel betrayed by LeBron James, they have shown their support for the team despite a 19-63 record. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)
Beyond my interest in sports as fan, my interest in the business of sports has grown over the past several years. One of the aspects of sports business that I find the most interesting are attendance figures for teams in the various leagues. I’m interested in the raw numbers, but also in what cause fluctuations from year to year or within seasons. A helpful tool for my odd obsession with attendance figures is the SportsBusiness Journal’s Turnstile Tracker. The SBJ, in its April 4-10 issue, published the latest Turnstile Tracker for the NBA and the NHL and some of the statistics were surprising. Let’s take a look at the NBA first.
NBA – A couple of things jumped out at me as I was perusing the figures. These numbers are through March 29, which accounts for between 35-38 of an NBA team’s 41 home games.
1. The Cleveland Cavaliers are 2nd in the NBA in overall attendance at 763,636 fans through 38 games (the Chicago Bulls are first by a wide margin – 803,874 fans through 37 games). While the average (20,096) isn’t 100% of capacity (which is 20,562 for the Quicken Loans Arena), it’s still pretty impressive. Cleveland wasn’t competitive this season, finishing just 19-63, and lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat in the offseason. It’s almost like the fans in Cleveland came out to support the team as a way to stick it to LeBron. Impressively, 24 home games counted at the time of publication, were played before an arena holding 98% or more of capacity. The only other teams – the Boston Celtics, Chicago, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Utah Jazz, to match that are in the playoffs or in Utah’s case are the only thing in town (no offense to Real Salt Lake who don’t play for most of the NBA season). Several playoff teams – the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Atlanta Hawks – couldn’t match Cleveland’s support.
2. The Philadelphia 76ers played the most games (25 out of 35) in front of crowds that were less than 75% of capacity. This surprises me. The 76ers got off to a rough start, but were competitive throughout the season and made the playoffs. On average only 70.8% of the seats in the arena were filled on any given night. It’s pretty clear that the Sixers have slipped to #4, and maybe even #5 behind the Philadelphia Union, in the pecking order of Philadelphia sports.
3. Only two teams (the New Jersey Nets and the Indiana Pacers) played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans. New Jersey played a game before just 8,866 fans, and Indiana played before 9,466. An interesting fact about the Nets – despite playing before the lowest crowd in the NBA this season, the team has enjoyed an 8.6% increase in attendance from last year.
4. Overall, the NBA has seen a 1% increase in attendance vs. last season and is playing before arenas filled to 90.1% of capacity.
It seems like a lot of fans will be missing the NBA if the current labor situation does not get resolved before the start of next season. The current collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30 and the possibility of a lockout looks more and more likely. That said, there are clearly a couple of markets that probably wouldn’t miss the hardwood too much if the 2011-2012 season if the NBA shortens or cancels its season.
NHL – The NHL, more than the NBA, relies on putting fans in the seats to pay the bills, and is having a pretty good year overall. The numbers cited below account for between 37-40 of the NHL’s 41 home games. Some interesting numbers:
1. The NHL is averaging only a couple hundred fewer fans per game than the NBA – 17,071 for the NHL to the NBA’s 17,262. Not bad for a sport that is a distant 4th in the pantheon of American sports.
2. While it might have seemed sad that the Nets and Pacers played before fewer than 10,000 fans, they have nothing on the NHL. The New York Islanders played a game at Nassau Coliseum in front of just 3,136 fans. It is worth mentioning that this game was played during the post-Christmas blizzard that blanketed much of the Northeast in over a foot of snow, but other teams were still able to but fans in the seats. There were 4 other teams that played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans – the Atlanta Thrashers (8,461), the Columbus Blue Jackets (9,128), the New Jersey Devils (5,329) and the Phoenix Coyotes (6,706).
3. Of the teams with the 10 lowest average attendance figures (click here to see the list from ESPN – this list doesn’t match the SBJ list exactly, but it is illustrative), 6 are located in the South and 1 is in California. It’s pretty clear that the NHL’s strategy to expand into the South isn’t working and some of those teams need to be relocate to areas that will support the teams.
4. Chicago loves it NBA and NHL teams. The Blackhawks and Bulls are the leaders in average attendance for both leagues. While part of this can be attributed to the United Center’s ability to hold nearly 20,00o seated fans for hockey and nearly 21,000 for basketball, both teams are playing to capacities of over 100%, meaning fans are flocking to see the Blackhawks and Bulls play and are willing to stand to do it. Impressive.
Philadelphia fans have been turning out in bunches to see the Flyers, but have abandoned the Sixers.
5. While Philly has seemingly abandoned the playoff bound Sixers, the Flyers have seen an uptick in attendance compared to last season. The Flyers are 3rd in the NHL in average attendance and have played before 100.9% of capacity over the course of the season.
It will be interesting to see if the NHL capitalizes on the potential NBA labor strife. If there is a shortened or canceled NBA season, will that mean more fans going to see hockey? Time will tell.