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The Sports Daily > The 6th Sens
Guest Post by @StefanWolejszo: A Detailed Look at Ottawa’s Attendance

The Senators’ attendance issue is something that’s been tackled by a variety of news sources, but until now, this site hasn’t really discussed the sparse crowds in great detail until now.

The following post was penned by the excellent @StefanWolejszo. If you’re not already, give your head a shake and give the man a follow on Twitter.

Take it away, Stef. 

The dramatic drop in attendance for Ottawa Senators’ home games this season has become both a local and a national story. Both of the main Ottawa newspapers have mentioned low attendance in post-game summaries, and secondary news sources such as The Ottawa Report have keyed in on low attendance in feature stories about the Senators. NBC Sports published an article on Ottawa Senators’ attendance woes before the Senators played their 4th home game, and CBC also ran a feature this past week focusing on how Ottawa fans have been staying at home in large numbers so far this season.

Media attention, along with the experience of attending or watching Senators games played before a lot of empty seats, has fueled speculation about why people are staying away.

A quick survey of fan thoughts reveals a staggering number of possible reasons for the attendance drop, including (in no particular order): federal government employees suffering through an ongoing pay issue created by the government’s decision to switch to Phoenix; the discussion of new arena this past summer helps make the current game day experience feel insufficient; there’s the inefficient location of Canadian Tire Center; many local sports fans allocating their entertainment dollars to go to RedBlacks CFL football games; many sports fans elected to stay home and watch the Blue Jays’ playoff run instead; low scoring games this season fuelling the perception of an unentertaining style; “Melnyk malaise” has set in; a lack of changes in personnel that leads fans to believe team cannot or will not improve; an underwhelming in-game experience for fans; a genuine concern for the lack of team direction or an investment of hope that current management and ownership can deliver a winner; the prohibitive cost of going to games coupled with how enjoyable and affordable the experience is watching on HDTV at home; the abandonment of Capital Tickets and transition to the new Ticketmaster system has not been smooth; the ignorance and complete disregard for tradition (ie. this organization has a stunning ability to take what should be a slam dunk decision and doing the complete opposite (ie. Lyndon Slewidge, their hesitancy to embrace analytics, bungling the Daniel Alfredsson contract negotiations); there are roster decisions that fuel the perception that this team is putting its short-term interests and low benchmarks ahead of its long-term interests; there have been too many home games stacked too close together against dreadful draws; casual fans and season ticket holders have a hard time being enticed to go to a game or renew their ticket packages when the team is stuck in a perpetual cycle of mediocrity; the easily identifiable blue line problem that has existed since the conclusion of the 2006/07 season still hasn’t been fixed; fans having a hard time stomaching talks about internal budget; the quality of the team’s marketing department has noticeably deteriorated; some believe that the promotion of the Pierre Dorion maintained status quo or at the very least, view him as being complicit in the way this franchise has operated over the past number of years; and finally, many fans remain skeptical and would prefer to wait and see whether this product is worth investing time and money into.

Whew, that is quite a long list, but by no means is it exhaustive.

For the most part individual fans and media identify their own gripes with the team and work backwards from there.

That is understandable, but often time not particularly illuminating. For example, although Bryan Murray remains a popular figure in Ottawa are fans really staying away by the thousands because they are outraged that he is no longer the GM of the team, as NBC suggested?

Does the argument that fans staying away because the current structure is boring hold up when attendance was down from the first game of the season?

Was autumn in Ottawa this year really that much better than every other year over the past couple of decades? And, are Ottawa fans really bandwagoners considering they supported some pretty crappy teams in the past?

Comparing Apples to Apples

The first step in looking at attendance issues with the Ottawa Senators this season is to piece together how big a drop has actually occurred.

Media accounts that I have seen have compared this year’s attendance to date with averages from past seasons.

Using this method CBC, for example, showed that the team has experienced a drop of 3000-4000 fans per game.

This is misleading because the initial 11 games of the season may not ever draw as many fans as later games when the stakes get higher and the team is in a playoff drive. To correct this I have compiled historic averages in attendance of only the first 11 games of each season. Note that I relied on data from the Ottawa Senators website which only goes back to the 1997-98 season.

Mean Average Attendance for First 11 Home Games

Season Attendance Team Success Notes
1997-98 16353 Lost 2nd round
1998-99 15572 Lost 1st round
1999-00 16819 Lost 1st round
2000-01 17048 Lost 1st round
2001-02 16464 Lost 2nd round
2002-03 16120 Lost 3rd round President’s Trophy winners
2003-04 17076 Lost 1st round Melnyk becomes owner
2004-05 n/a Season cancelled
2005-06 19220 Lost 2nd round Start of CASH (Pizza) line
2006-07 18927 Cup Finalists
2007-08 19406 Lost 1st round
2008-09 18970 Missed playoffs
2009-10 18221 Lost 1st round
2010-11 17817 Missed playoffs
2011-12 19051 Lost 1st round First (last?) year of mini-rebuild
2012-13 18981 Lost 2nd round Lockout shortened season
2013-14 17539 Missed playoffs No more free tickets
2014-15 18474 Lost 1st round First RedBlacks season
2015-16 17562 Missed playoffs  
2016-17 14984 TBD LeBreton Arena proposals in summer

The drop in attendance from last season appears to be about 2500 fans. It should be noted that 2015-16 was also on the low end of normal so the falloff could be a bit higher. Comparing the first 11 games of this season with the first 11 games of other seasons corrects the perception that the Sens have lost 3000-4000 fans.

Unlikely

Several fan theories seem unlikely based on these figures. For example, the theory that Ottawa fans will only support a winner is not really true given that attendance was really good in 2011-12 despite missing the playoffs two out of the prior three seasons.

The lack of free tickets is also not likely because there was no real falloff in attendance after the team stopped giving tickets away in 2013-14. In fact, if you consider that the numbers prior to 2013-14 were probably inflated by giveaways there were probably more ticket buyers after the change in team policy.

The team played its 11th game of this season on Nov 19, and the density of home games (i.e. how close they are together) is similar to 2015-16 (for example), while 2013-14 had more home games in a shorter period of time at the start of the season. We can safely set aside the argument that the density of games was the driving factor. There was definitely a lot of suckage among early opponents and the Sens faced teams that never draw particularly well such as Carolina and Arizona. However, attendance was also down against Toronto and Montreal, who are typically huge draws, so it is unlikely that the mix of teams that were visiting was that big a driver in the attendance drop.

I also classify things that have not changed from year to year as being unlikely causes of the drop in attendance. For instance, although the Kanata location sucks it does not suck any more than it did a decade ago when the Sens were playing in front of a packed house. Ditto for parking, and if anything the food has marginally improved. I am highly skeptical that discussing the possibility of a move to LeBreton a few years down the road provided a psychic shock to fans that led them to suddenly realize, en masse, that Kanata is essentially a sewer built on top of a swamp located in the middle of nowhere. I am also skeptical that there has been a drop in marketing quality this particular year that is so massive that a couple of thousand people who would otherwise attend game opted to just stay at home instead.

One argument that certainly appears to make sense is that since coming onto the scene in 2014 the Ottawa RedBlacks football team is siphoning off dollars from a limited pool of sports fans in the city. The question, however, is whether this argument holds up when looking more closely at the numbers. RedBlacks attendance over their three years in Ottawa is shown in the table below.

Ottawa RedBlacks Attendance

Year Regular Season Playoffs
2014 24295 n/a
2015 23432 25093
2016 24673 24248

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Senators and RedBlacks share a lot of the same fans. However, when looking at attendance figures for football and hockey it is hard to justify the argument that Sens attendance has dipped because of the RedBlacks.

When football first came onto the scene in 2014 Senators actually increased their average ticket sales by about 900. The Sens dropped by about 900 the next season when the RedBlacks had a better team and made the playoffs, but RedBlacks regular season attendance that year was down almost as much as the Sens. Furthermore, the amount the Sens dropped can be interpreted as a return to normal because their attendance over the first 11 games of 2015-16 was roughly the same as it was over that same stretch in 2013-14. The only real argument left is that the RedBlacks attendance went up by 1250 or so fans in 2016 and they made the playoffs. However, that gain in fans simply brought them back to the level they were at in 2014 when the Sens were at a high mark in attendance.

Lastly, if the RedBlacks playoff game in 2015 had no negative impact on Sens attendance over the first 11 games of that season there is no real reason to believe the playoff game this year, with lower attendance, explains the Sens fans staying at home this year. Some fans who initially attended both football and hockey games may indeed have come to the conclusion that they will keep supporting the RedBlacks but not the Sens, but that appears to be an issue of the Sens losing those fans more than the RedBlacks stealing them away.

Plausible

When unlikely arguments, and facets of the franchise that do not really change from season to season, are stripped away we are really left with two plausible explanations for the drop in Senators attendance: the impact of Phoenix issues, and a general dissatisfaction about the direction of the team.

The Phoenix pay issues for Government of Canada employees seems like a good fit because those issues coincide with the drop in attendance. However, two things that happen at the same time are not necessarily related to each other. With this in mind I started to double-check whether the math adds up (beware, math coming- if you are not interested skip ahead to the next paragraph). Phoenix initially impacted on the pay of 80,000 Government of Canada employees, and that number was reduced to 40,000 by the summer with 18,000 or so lingering cases right now. About 42% of federal public servants are in the National Capital Region (NCR), which means (assuming pay issues were randomly distributed) approximately 33,600 people in the Ottawa area were initially impacted.

According to Statistics Canada, the Ottawa-Gatineau area has a population of 1.11 million people, 772,900 of whom are in the labor force. Assuming more people who attend Sens games are on the Ottawa side it should be noted that Ottawa itself has a population of 839,000 with 580,800 in the labor force. Using only number for Ottawa the Phoenix pay issue impacted on about 5.8% of workers in Ottawa, with 2.9% of the workforce still impacted over summer and about 1.3% of Ottawa’s work force still experiencing Phoenix-related pay issues.

The long and the short of it is that compared with last season the Senators experienced a drop in attendance over the first 11 games of about 14.7% while Phoenix pay issues, at their worst point, impacted on roughly 5.8% of the work force. At first glance that does not add up, but there are two other factors to consider in this equation. First off people do not exist in isolation, so if a pay issue hits one person in a couple it is possible that neither will go so two tickets will not be sold.

This effect is further amplified for people who normally bring children to games. Of course there are probably plenty of cases where there is no such multiplication of effects, such as when Phoenix issues impact on potential ticket buyers who are single, or when both individuals who form the couple experience separate Phoenix issues. Also, with a relatively small proportion of lingering pay issues left people could simply buy tickets to games once their pay issues are resolved.  Second, public servants may be disproportionately represented among ticket buyers.

This actually makes some degree of sense since public servants typically have a decent level of pay, and it is not hard to imagine a lot of them would want to relax and take in a game after sitting in a cubicle and praying for death all day long. For this reason I prefer to err on the high side with my estimates of the impact of Phoenix issues on ticket purchases.

At the end of the day, at its worst, Phoenix issues could potentially account for as much as a 10% drop in attendance. Even if it does actually account for 10% of the difference between last season and this season it still leaves us with about 1000-1500 less fans to account for (after a loss of almost 1000 fans the season before).

At this point it is likely that fan perception of the direction of the team is a factor. Fans weigh many factors when deciding to spend money to buy tickets, and if they stop having faith in the direction of the team they will spend their $50, or $100, or $200 elsewhere. The most important thing a team sells to fans is hope, and although it is anecdotal it appears that working on a low-end budget and trying continually to “win now” and earn playoff revenue is not capturing the imagination of parts of the fan base in Ottawa. That is not to say trying to make the playoffs is a bad thing. In fact, just making the playoffs is a very reasonable goal for franchises who have been bad for a while, and long-suffering fans always appreciate the jolt of energy when their team makes it back in. But that does not seem to be that way in Ottawa, and at least some fans are becoming jaded about the notion that this team will progress and ultimately contend for the Cup in the near or medium horizon. As they search for something to get behind, many fans are struggling to figure out what direction the team is actually going in and what the larger plan is.

Implications

In their annual review of team finances, Forbes lists Ottawa Senators gate receipts for 2015 as being $41 million. The loss of fans is not randomly distributed across different sections, but for our purposes we can estimate that a 14.7% drop in attendance over the course of the season would represent a loss of revenue of about 5 or 6 million. In fact, it has probably already cost the team somewhere in the range of $1.0-$1.5 million in ticket sales alone. It gets worse when you look at revenue per fan, which accounts for a portion of fans paying for parking, buying a drink, and having a snack. In 2015 the Sens made, on average, $76 per fan. If the team budgeted based on projections for similar ticket sales as last season, the shortfall of about 2500 fans per game represents a shortfall of over $2 million already, and if fans continue to stay away at this rate it would mean the team will be $8 million below projected revenues by the end of the season.

Yikes!

The first thing I thought of when that number came up on my calculator was Melnyk’s comments shortly after Dorion was hired. In his initial presser Dorion told the media that he had the financial flexibility to hire any coach he wanted, even someone with a hefty price tag like Boudreau. Melnyk quickly did his own media spot where he suggested that any money Dorion spends on a coach will come from other places. The 8 million dollar question is what will happen when the team ends up in the black for what appears to be a pretty hefty amount.

Once the holiday season arrives and we get into the winter months, I anticipate that we’ll continue to see that trend where attendance rises, but it’s impossible to ignore this market’s response to the state of the Ottawa Senators.

Thanks to one playoff series win in the past ten years and the lack of confidence in Melnyk to deliver a winner, it’s hard to blame fans for what’s essentially a reasonable reaction to this product.

Ottawa has a smart fan base and fatigue has set in and they’re voicing their displeasure with their wallets. That doesn’t mean that this city and its fans don’t support this hockey club. They do. It just means that there’s a serious distrust with the way that their hockey team is operating. Until there’s a significant improvement or the vision for this team’s future outlook becomes less muddied, it’s an issue that the organization will have to address.