It's still early but a look at attendance figures across the WHL shows that some teams are having a strong start to the year at the gate while others are showing an alarming drop in ticket sales. This isn't limited to just the WHL of course as teams in every North American league have their ups and downs but for now let's just look at the Major junior loop in Western Canada.
According to this chart, as of October 21st there are just 8 of 22 WHL teams showing an increase of ticket sales. Not surprisingly, the Portland Winterhawks are enjoying a nice rise in attendance considering the quality of the team on the ice compared to the last decade.
However, attendance doesn't seem to be affected all that much, at least early on, by on ice performance. The Calgary Hitmen are up by more than 10% this year despite having a much less successful record compared to recent years. Seattle is way up (almost 48%) but the T-Birds are pretty mediocre so far.
The only team that is showing zero growth or loss is Medicine Hat and that's simply because with nightly sellouts year after year, there is no up or down.
That leaves 13 clubs who have seen a drop in attendance, just a slight one in the cases of Kelowna, Brandon and Spokane but much more dramatic in other markets.
I am stunned to see that the resurgent Prince George Cougars, 4th in the Western Conference but tops in the B.C. Division going by winning percentage, have had a decline of almost 10%. This is a club that now has star power and is more than competitive for the first time since 2005-06 but that clearly hasn't registered with the ticket buying fan base yet. The Cougars are averaging 3009 people so far, better than four other clubs but not nearly as good as they deserve.
I am assuming it is the loss of star power that has hurt Regina the most, but being last place probably plays a role too. The Pats are down 10.28% so far this year without Jordan Eberle, Colten Teubert and other fan favorites. The team is clearly in a rebuild and once new GM Chad Lang moves out guys like Carter Ashton, I wonder if attendance drops even more.
Despite being in 1st place in the Eastern Conference, the Saskatoon Blades are down a whopping 14.85% at the gate. Less than 4000 people are showing up to see, arguably, the best team in the Conference. I can't explain it so if anyone has an idea, please educate me. It's not like there is a lot of competition in 'Toon-town for the Blades.
No question the most dramatic drop off in the WHL is the massive 24.55% decline in ticket sales for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Now in their 4th season, the initial 3-year Founders Club packages have expired and clearly many of those customers didn't renew their seats. The announced attendance average at Rexall this year has been 3570 which is not a clear indication of actual people in the seats. Having been to all but one home game for the Oil Kings this season I can tell you that, aside from opening night, there have only been about 1500 people there. Last Friday's game against Medicine Hat may have brought in 2500-3000. The photo at the top was taken during warm up of a pre-season Oilers game but it's a pretty good representation of what it looks like during Oil Kings games on some nights (but push the people from the second deck down because they don't sell tickets outside of the lower bowl anymore).
If anyone has ideas on why attendance is suffering in so many WHL markets, I'd love to hear it. Over the next week or so I'm going to be looking into some things to try and shed some light on the subject.