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December 17, 2012
Zamboni Tracks
No Light At The End Of The Tunnel

by Ryan Wagman

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The title of this article could be taken as a reference to the bitter, acrimonious, and now litigious labor battle that has prevented us from watching hockey at its highest level since last June. It could be a poignant message to those despairing from the despicable gun violence that has seemingly added victims at a more fast-churning pace than ever lately, with last Friday's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut only the latest soul-wrenching event. This article is about neither of those events.

To clarify, this article is related to the first point, as nearly every hockey-themed piece of writing at this time must in some way allude to the lockout, in accordance with sub-section 248.b of the Hockey Writer's Code, but the connection is tangential here at best. What this article intends to do is to examine the role of lower-tier hockey when the top-tier disappears.

According to data kept at theAHL.com, as of December 14, 2012, the current top level professional hockey circuit in North America—perhaps surprisingly, without the "competition" of the NHL—is suffering from a decline in attendance. This data has some caveats, as it reflects that the current season is only part way through (32.4% of the games played this year, compared to the total played in 2011-12) and does not account for the fact that attendance may well rise as the season nears playoff time.

Those points aside, the numbers are troubling, especially when considering that the league had been on the upswing for the past few years prior to this one. The chart below also includes attendance figures for the AHL affiliates located in Toronto and Chicago, as both represent the sole cities featuring teams from both levels.

AHL attendance since 2005-06

Season		AHL Average	Change		AHL-Toronto	AHL-Chicago 
2005-06		5,488		--		4,362		7,932
2006-07		5,472		-0.3%		3,829		7,830
2007-08		5,270		-3.7%		4,348		7,474
2008-09		5,115		-2.9%		3,728		7,316
2009-10		5,100		-0.3%		4,070		7,963
2010-11		5,380		+5.5%		4,694		7,453
2011-12		5,638		+4.8%		5,480		7,909
2012-13*	5,251		-6.9%		6,230		6,334 

*Accounts for 369 games; the schedule has typically run between 1140-1200 games since 2007-08.

Remembering again that these numbers are not conclusive, the trends within can still be analyzed. Toronto Attendance

When the AHL season began, the Toronto Marlies, the farm club of the local Maple Leafs, coming off an appearance in the Calder Cup finals the previous spring, made a concerted push to reel in additional hockey fans. A key part of their marketing was that the Marlies are an acceptable, family-friendly, and affordable alternative to the typically exorbitantly priced Maple Leafs games.

Those two factors may explain the upswing in Marlies attendance, although considering that parking at the Ricoh can cost more than game tickets, we may not know which variable is more important until/unless they are forced to share prime time with the Maple Leafs once more. With a competitive roster, the team should be able to draw an average approaching 5,500. Chicago Attendance

The Chicago Wolves were the AHL affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers until the latter picked up stakes and moved to Winnipeg, possibly disconcerted that their AHL affiliate drew almost as much of a crowd as did their NHL team. The Jets decided to draw their AHL talent from St. John's, Newfoundland, which, coincidentally, used to be the AHL home of the Toronto Maple Leafs before they moved to Toronto for the 2005-06 season. The Vancouver Canucks have staffed the Wolves roster and front office since that time, with no tangible effect on attendance.

Unlike in Toronto, where the absence of an NHL alternative has driven more fans to the open arms of the AHL, Chicago sports fans have seemingly neglected hockey altogether, with the Wolves suffering from a near 20% drop in attendance from last season to this one. It's hard to blame team quality on this drop, although their current third place divisional standing is a far cry from their division winning campaign of last season. Considering that the success of previous seasons tends to lead to improved attendance in the following season—as we are seeing in Toronto—the drop in attendance is far more likely to be an effect of dwindling appreciation of hockey in the Windy City.

A third possibility, mentioned by a friend of the Zamboni Track, Ari Aberman, is that Blackhawk fans naturally have an aversion to the Wolves' parent club from Vancouver. If that is the case, it would not account for their attendance spike last season, their first as a Canuck affiliate, but incessant negative PR from the Hawks towards the Canucks may have turned some people away. If so, those people are not taking the 90-mile trek west to Rockford, where the Blackhawks house their own AHL affiliate. The IceHogs have sputtered along with attendance figures in the low 4,000s for the past few years, not showing substantial change from last season to the present one. AHL Attendance

While AHL attendance dwindled in each season from 2005-06 (the earliest year for which theAHL.com keeps full statistics) through the 2009-10 season, the drops were marginal, only twice eclipsing 0.5%. The league saw a big turnaround in time for the 2010-11 season with a 5.5% uptick that saw attendance figures nearly return to the halcyon days of 2006-07. The following season saw the figures jump once again, with the additional rise of 4.8% making last season the league's strongest in the era for which figures are publically available.

Even bearing in mind the potential that AHL attendance increases as the season gets deeper, the current downturn, marking the biggest year-over-year percentage drop in the recorded period, must be alarming. Considering that most AHL locations would not have been competing directly with other sports for entertainment dollars, the numbers can only portray a dwindled interest in hockey as a sport, regardless of level.

While not the only possible answer, it does reflect feelings I have been having as the lockout has lingered long past the point that many fans and analysts would have deemed reasonable. When the early stretch of the season was canceled, I consoled myself with thoughts that I could spend more time playing with my infant daughter, watching the MLB playoffs (I am a long-time Giants fan), and perfecting the 2012-13 Hockey Prospectus annual that you should hopefully already have purchased. I had assumed that the issues were minor enough that they should not have taken more than a few weeks, or maybe a month, to be resolved.

At the time I said that if the lockout should extend into November, I would then begin to watch and attend OHL and AHL games. Living just outside of Toronto, I am a reasonable drive from two AHL teams (Toronto and Hamilton) and no less than seven OHL arenas (Niagara, Barrie, Kitchener, Mississauga, Brampton, Oshawa, and Guelph). Further, even if I stayed home, there was plenty of AHL and OHL action for me to enjoy on TV.

We're now into mid-December and I have yet to visit a hockey arena of any size or scope—at least not for the purpose of watching a hockey game. I do have tickets to see the Hamilton Bulldogs against the Toronto Marlies at the Air Canada Centre on Boxing Day (aka "The Day After Christmas" in Canada) but those are a gift. Every time I get wind of a game on TV, I think to myself about tuning in and invariably drift away. This would not have been the case in previous years, as I was known to annoy my wife by watching hockey of many stripes whenever possible. I would explain to her that, even though this was not hockey at his highest level, it was a key link in the chain. I could watch an AHL game and think about how this player or that one would fit into his parent NHL roster. I could watch an OHL game and pick out the top players, consider their pro potential, whether they were already drafted or were striving to hear their name called next June.

The lower levels were exciting in how they related to the NHL. Now the NHL is dormant, leaving the AHL, OHL, NCAA, and other leagues to stand on their own. As much as I love hockey—and you do, too, if you are reading this article—it is hard not to find something else to do instead of tuning into the AHL game. Without the standard from which we draw comparisons, without that light at the end of the tunnel, the lower levels seem more trivial, more provincial. I still believe that I will be as invested in the upcoming World Junior Championship as ever, as that event is still a tournament of best on best. But then again, I watch all non-equestrian events when it comes to the Olympics, too.

The NHL, in its recent suit filed against the NHLPA, aimed at establishing the lockout as legal in a preemptive move against an NHLPA disclaimer of interest and/or decertification, claimed that hockey players have many other non-NHL alternatives to making a living, citing the growing number of one-time NHLers plying their trades in Europe. If the AHL attendance numbers are anything close to indicative, the lockout may have hurt any hunger for the sport in North America, proving that the paying public has other viable alternatives for their discretionary income. Should the KHL take full advantage of the situation here and grow their league and brand, the NHL may finally have some true, direct competition for what it offers. It may lead to a stronger NHL down the line, much the same way that stronger soccer leagues in continental Europe have served to force the English Premiership to strengthen its brand. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Until that happens, the reverse is still in effect. Without the NHL to create top-level interest, the lower leagues in North America are stripped of their target. The weakened tide has landlocked all boats.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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