For much of the season, myself and other Coyotes faithfuls were tortured by national media commentators telling us the dire status of our team and how hockey simply doesn't work in the Valley of the Sun where the temperature does not dip low enough in the winter months to allow for backyard pond hockey. Like most of the season ticket holders and huge Coyotes fans that I know, we just went along, pointing out the issues with the way that the questions were framed. We pointed out the poor decisions that the team had made, the 8 years of losing, the bankruptcy, the lack of marketing, etc. etc. In the end, we knew one thing, hockey could succeed in Phoenix.
Last week, Derek Zona posted this article on From the Rink with this season's final attendance numbers for each team. His notes on the Coyotes were:
Everyone's favorite NHL story, the Phoenix Coyotes, saw the biggest drop in attendance from 14,876 (84% capacity) a year ago to 11,989 (67% capacity) this season. The ownership issues obviously had an enormous impact on the attendance numbers, as the television ratings jumped 24% from 9,200 households to 11,500 households.
I inquired whether a month-by-month breakdown could be made, but it was not to be. So I scurried around and found the numbers myself, and they reflect a lot of what I witnessed throughout the season. A dreadful beginning, followed by a steady rise following Christmas and a very strong finish...
After the jump, I'll explore a couple of breakdowns of the numbers and what I think it shows for the future viability of hockey in Phoenix...
First, let's just look at the month-by-month breakdown. Note that the Coyotes only played 2 home games in the months of February and April, so those numbers have a bit of small sample size concerns:
As you can see, there is a steady rise in attendance throughout the season. While the final average attendance was just 11,989 (ranking dead last in the NHL), the Coyotes post-Christmas attendance averaged 13,870, which was better than the Thrashers or the Islanders and within a hundred of the Avalanche. Is it right to completely discount the first half of the season? Of course not; but it is clear that once the Coyotes started winning, and more and more news came out about the ownership probably being resolved, fans started to come out to Glendale.
Some additional numbers of interest: Coyotes Saturday attendance averaged 13,359 for the season and 15,759 post-Christmas. That's a very healthy number of fans making it out to Glendale for those Saturday games.
Additionally, the only three games post-Christmas that did not break 10,000 fans were Tuesday, January 12 against the Sharks (9,248); Thursday, January 14 against the Devils (9,430); and Thursday January 21 against the Predators (9,142). Although those are very poor numbers, they were certainly the anomaly and not the rule. And they are three mid-week games without large transplant fanbases in Phoenix.
The first two playoffs games have been huge successes with sell out crowds of over 17,000 for each. Friday night's game is (or will soon be) a 3rd sellout, marking the 7th straight for the team (and as an aside, the breakdown of Coyotes to Red Wings fans for games 1 and 2 was probably 85-15 and 75-25, respectively).
What does it all mean? I think it means that there are plenty of people that are willing to support the Coyotes in Phoenix and make it the successful franchise that the NHL believes it can be. Will these fans keep showing up indefinitely? Of course not; not unless the product on the ice continues to be worth seeing. Phoenix has a fickle fanbase and the only team that has any real history here are the Suns, and even they were struggling to sell tickets at the beginning of the season before folks knew that they would be a decent team.
Winning this first round series against Detroit will help significantly in galvanizing the goodwill of the fans in Phoenix. Settling the ownership situation ASAP and spending the summer planning an aggressive marketing campaign will help prevent the drop-off when the next season opens. Having another successful season next year and challenging for the Pacific Division crown will really be the key.
I guess the point I'd like to leave you with is this: I challenge any fanbase that is not one of the Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Red Wings, Rangers, Flyers and maybe one or two others that are slipping my mind to suffer a period of prolonged disappointment and not see the types of attendance woes that we saw in Phoenix in the early part of this season. The Penguins and Capitals were having terrible attendance numbers prior to their recent successes. Even last year, the attendance was not great, but it was decent (14,876 average attendance, fairly steady throughout the season). The beginning part of this season was hell for Coyotes fans, and the fans that were with me for the games when the attendance was under 8,000 truly wondered whether it was a pipedream to keep our team.
Is the fanbase perfect? No, but which fanbase really is? Can it and will it succeed? I think so. The bandwagon may be large, but it's not all folks that don't know anything about hockey. It's a lot of folks that just had been turned off by the negativity surrounding the team over the past few years and especially this past summer. Sure, some folks are just starting to get into hockey and don't know all the rules yet, but keep cultivating this fanbase by putting a winning product on the ice, and I have no doubt that the Coyotes will be every bit as successful as Dallas in establishing a franchise that nobody is talking about moving every few years.