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Fickle Fans and Failure

D'Arcy McGrath

August 1, 2001

Fans can be fickle. 

When a professional sports team fails to win for any extended duration of time, it's only natural that more and more fans will choose not to make an appearance in stadiums or arenas to support the home town team.

In large markets the population is large enough to support the team through the tough times. Even with a losing team the crowds stay constant because of the high number of hockey enthusiasts and the limited number of seats. The Toronto Maple Leafs boasted some of the league's best capacity percentage numbers through the eighties despite having a laughing stock of a hockey team, and a clinically insane team owner. 

It just didn't matter. They showed up with paper bags over their heads, but they showed up.

In smaller markets a tough spell on the ice can create a tough sell off the ice, and threaten the very existence of a franchise, as seen in Winnipeg, Hartford, and Colorado back when the Rockies were woeful. 

The city simply didn't support their team.

What Goes Up ...

Outside large markets the percentage of filled capacity in arenas can be directly related to success on the ice. It's literally a straight trend on a graph.

The graph above shows the relationship between attendance and a team's placement in the standings.

The numbers are taken from a 12 year data set from 1989-90 to 2000-01. The thin black line represents the exponential polynomial trend line represented by the actual data shown in orange.

During the 12 years the first place team averaged a capacity rate of close to 98%. Teams in the middle of the pack were still quite popular in their markets, coming in closer to 90%. The capacity rate of the cellar dwellers moves alarming close to 75%.

The Flames?

The Calgary Flames finished 21st, 22nd, 20th, 22nd and 20th from 1996-97 to last year. A team finishing at the top of the bottom third would expect to have a capacity rate of approximately 85%.

In those years the Flames had capacity percentages of 88%, 85%, 86.5%, 89.4% and 97%, actually a little better than the league averages for teams in historically similar situations.

The table below shows the Calgary Flames particulars during this era.

In the late 80's and early 90's the Flames were a dominant hockey club, which was shown in their percentage of capacity numbers close to 100%. They were in the top five for this stat for four years to start the era off.

The NHL Lock Out during the 1994-95 season had a profound effect on the team's attendance success, with almost seven to eight percent less capacity numbers appearing the very next season.

From there the Flames began their tumble down the standings, and similarly the capacity rankings.

Year Standing Att. Rank % Capacity
1989-90 2 3 99.00
1990-91 5 3 98.40
1991-92 17 2 99.50
1992-93 9 9 98.60
1993-94 7 10 97.60
1994-95 7 13 96.10
1995-96 15 17 90.90
1996-97 21 18 88.00
1997-98 22 19 85.00
1998-99 20 21 86.50
1999-00 22 19 89.41
2000-01 20 10 97.00

How do Calgarians Compare?

Now that we've established that the average Calgarian's propensity for fickletood is well within normal parameters, how does the city stack up with other teams that experienced on ice failure for prolonged periods?

The Boston Bruins were a top ten team for seven years up to the 1995-96 season, before taking a tumble to last overall. With their success they enjoyed top ten attendance statistics, but fell to the late teens and early twenties in rankings once the losing began. They were ranked 20th during the 2000-01 season with a capacity rate of 89.2%.

The Blackhawks fans have turned on their team in the last five years in even greater numbers. The early nineties saw top ten attendance figueres, but a move to the United Center and years of losing had the team near the bottom in the last few years. They finished 28th last season with a lowly capacity percentage of only 73.2%.

The Edmonton Oilers have been in the playoffs the last five years, and with that positive turn of events their capacity percentages increased significantly from the lean years. In the four non playoff years the Oilers had capacity percentages of 86.5%, 78.8%, 76.7% and 72.1%, numbers much worse than what the Flames are currently experiencing. Even the success of the last few years hasn't pushed the Oilers high up the NHL list, their capacity rate was only 91.3% last year.

Time to Win

The Calgary Flames marketing staff is currently beating the paths in an attempt to drum up more season ticket sales for the 2001-02 season.

Many of the 14,000 ticket holders that stepped up last year are having second thoughts this summer after yet another losing season.

By the time camp opens the number will likely rise from the 10,000 it sits at today, to closer to 12,000. Walk up traffic will likely bring the average into the mid 14,000 mark for the season as a whole, a percentage close to the expected 85%.

Despite the doom and gloom in the papers, Calgarians are in fact supporting their hockey team. 

However, the lack of initial season ticket sales might keep the Flames from gaining the Canadian NHL assistance money, they so need to survive.

To this point the city has shown great patience in waiting for the squad to turn things around, but the Flames had better not try this patience.

The time to win is now, or they to may go the way of Winnipeg, Hartford or Colorado, and unlike Colorado it's doubtful Calgary will get a second chance.