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October 19, 2011
Illegal Curve
Do Fewer Empty Seats Mean Better Results?

by Richard Pollock

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Do fewer empty seats mean better results for your favorite team?

The Winnipeg Jets home opener was one of the biggest events of Winnipeg history. The game was an historic event that featured some of the craziest crowd noise at a hockey game in some time. The crowd was loud and the building was packed. Chants of "Go, Jets, Go!" were prevalent as soon as the doors opened and could be heard during the team's pre-game skate. It was as if the city had not see a home NHL game in 15 years…

With the Thrashers franchise moving to Winnipeg, many fans in the city contest that a packed MTS Centre will contribute to improved performance for the Winnipeg Jets 2.0. Many reference the fact that Atlanta had poor attendance figures and that the Thrashers played in front of less than—and sometimes far less—capacity. As a result, they believe the Thrashers players may have, in a sense, gotten off easy with mistakes and felt somewhat underappreciated at times.

In theory, more fans, more noise, and more emotional support would push a team to play better than playing in front of empty seats, but is this actually the case? What about the opposite effect? There is, of course, increased pressure and with more glory also comes more scrutiny.

We know that home ice advantage exists, but is there a greater advantage from having a packed building?

What do the numbers bear out?

First, let's qualify that this is a look at percentage capacity. Some buildings are far larger than others (for example, Montreal and Chicago), so instead, let's look at how full each building is in relation to each team's home/road goal differential.

Percentage of capacity vs. home to road goal differential, 2010-11	

Rank	Team		%Cap	Home-Road GD
1	Chicago		108.7	+8
2	Toronto		102.9	+18
3	Philadelphia	101.1	+12
4	Pittsburgh	100.9	+12
5	San Jose	100.4	+21
6	Vancouver	100.3	+10
7	Boston		100.0	+14
8	Calgary		100.0	+29
9	Edmonton	100.0	+9
10	Montreal	100.0	+25
11	St. Louis	100.0	+27
12	Washington	100.0	+28
13	Los Angeles	99.8	+7
14	Minnesota	99.7	+3
15	NY Rangers	99.5	+21
16	Ottawa		99.3	+15
17	Buffalo		98.7	+14
18	Detroit		98.1	-16
19	Nashville	94.3	+29
20	Carolina	87.6	+27
21	Tampa Bay	87.4	+47
22	Anaheim		85.8	+32
23	New Jersey	83.8	+20
24	Colorado	82.3	+3
25	Florida		81.5	+29
26	Dallas		81.3	+40
27	Columbus	75.3	+4
28	Atlanta		72.6	+18
29	Phoenix		71.2	+10
30	NY Islanders	67.9	+49

Percentage of capacity vs. home to road goal differential, 2009-10	

Rank	Team		%Cap	Home-Road GD
1	Chicago		108.3	+13
2	Toronto		102.5	+25
3	Vancouver	102.1	+74
4	Minnesota	101.9	+51
5	Pittsburgh	100.7	+40
6	San Jose	100.4	+40
7	Philadelphia	100.2	+28
8	Calgary		100.0	+2
9	Edmonton	100.0	+42
10	Montreal	100.0	+18
11	Washington	100.0	+14
12	NY Rangers	99.3	+21
13	Buffalo		99.1	+30
14	Boston		99.0	-1
15	Ottawa		98.8	+49
16	St. Louis	98.6	-14
17	Detroit		97.4	+34
18	Los Angeles	93.6	+12
19	Dallas		92.9	+40
20	Anaheim		88.3	+60
21	New Jersey	88.1	+42
22	Nashville	87.5	+10
23	Columbus	85.0	+43
24	Carolina	81.4	+17
25	Florida		78.7	+18
26	Tampa Bay	78.4	+50
27	NY Islanders	78.1	+56
28	Colorado	77.5	+31
29	Atlanta		73.4	+10
30	Phoenix		68.5	+31

Percentage of capacity vs. home to road goal differential, 2008-09	

Rank	Team		%Cap	Home-Road GD
1	Chicago		111.2	+25
2	Ottawa		105.0	+42
3	Minnesota	102.8	+37
4	Toronto		102.7	+0
5	Pittsburgh	102.6	+33
6	NY Rangers	102.3	+42
7	Vancouver	101.1	+34
8	Philadelphia	100.2	+24
9	Calgary		100.0	+71
10	Edmonton	100.0	+10
11	Montreal	100.0	+44
12	San Jose	100.0	+44
13	Buffalo		99.2	+11
14	Detroit		99.0	+33
15	Anaheim		98.9	+9
16	Boston		97.0	+36
17	Washington	96.9	+36
18	Dallas		95.4	+25
19	New Jersey	89.6	+43
20	Los Angeles	89.1	+28
21	Carolina	88.5	+3
22	St. Louis	88.4	+28
23	Nashville	87.7	+41
24	Columbus	85.7	+7
25	Colorado	85.7	+21
26	Tampa Bay	85.6	+6
27	Phoenix		85.0	+38
28	NY Islanders	84.5	+46
29	Florida		81.2	+18
30	Atlanta		78.9	-7

The correlation coefficients for the three most recent NHL seasons are as follows:

2010-11: -0.31
2009-10: -0.07
2008-09: 0.28

Overall, that results in a three-year average correlation of -0.033, or essentially no correlation at all.

Look at the New York Islanders for example. The Isles play in an old building, have iced a poor product for the better part of the past ten seasons (although there is a light at the end of the team's ever-long tunnel), yet the team is significantly better at home than it is on the road.

On the other hand, the Leafs have sold out for years and years, yet the Buds have not been significantly better at home than on the road, relative to the rest of the NHL.

So, while Jets fans hope their excitement level, and more specifically, a packed MTS Centre on a night-to-night basis will make a significant difference in the team's performance relative to its road play, it does not appear that has been the case in the past.

The numbers say the difference is hardly significant. Now if only one could only convince Jets fans that their passion may not make a significant difference…

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