Fan demand in hockey: what, where and why? Part 1

Every fall the media in Finland starts drumming up concern over how hockey fans aren’t finding their way to the stands. This time it started already during last season when Jokerit announced they’ll be joining the KHL for the 2014-15 season, and the hockey media in unison declared that to be catastrophic in terms of fan interest in the Finnish league.

I’ve been thinking about that whole thing for a while now, and decided to do some digging. Realizing that my posts in this blog are getting out of hand in terms of length as it is, I also decided to write about this whole thing, fan demand in hockey, in a series of posts. So welcome to the first installment of the Hockey Demand -series!

Is the Finnish media right? Is the fan interest dramatically diminished, compared to last season? Are fans gone from hockey? I thought I’d start the series by looking at the actual data for Finnish league and get to the “real” economic theory and analysis in later posts.

The basic idea in fan demand is simple. If we note ticket demand for a single game with D, we can assume the demand follows

D(ij) = H(i) + V(j) + M(ij).

, where D(ij) is the demand for tickets (i.e. the attendance) for a game between home team i and visiting team j. H(i) is the interest in home team i, defined by several variables such as market size, brand, fan base, local competition in terms of other sports and teams, arena capacity and so on. V(j) is the interest for visiting team j, again a combination of several variables, for example distance from j’s home area, brand, superstar players and so on. Lastly M(ij) is the match-specific interest, such as whether it’s a local rivalry, two teams competing for a playoff place, last season’s finalists, big promotional activities, TV visibility, day of week the match takes place… any and all such variables specific for a particular match.

Because of the different variables relating to home and away teams, it is important to notice that a game between two teams would draw a different attendance depending on which one is the home team. To consider that, I took the attendance in the Finnish league and broke it down by home team and by visiting team. Because the arenas differ considerably when it comes to size, simply comparing attendance figures would be deceptive. 4000 people would be practically full house to JYP (lowest audience capacity at 4365), yet it’s barely one third of seats for TPS (biggest arena with maximum attendance at 11 820). So instead I used relative attendance, or the fulfillment rate of the arena, that is, the attendance as a percentage of capacity.

Attendance during 2014-15 Fall season

During fall 2014 all but 3 match-ups took place, for a total of 228 games. 45 match-ups were placed twice, and 2 three times. For these a simple average was used. Because the data is mainly of single games for majority of home/away team combinations, far reaching conclusions are not advisable. The random match-specific variables, such as season opening, special promotions or simply the day of the week the game was played have too much effect on the attendance. However, certain trends do appear.

It is possible, for example, to identify teams with strong home-team demand. HIFK and Kärpät, for example, draw in good crowds regardless of who they’re playing against on their home ice. Since it could be argued that these two teams also have the strongest hockey brands in Finnish hockey, that comes as little surprise. It also follows that these two teams are interesting as visiting teams as well, an intuitive assumption supported by the attendance figures. For Kärpät, for example, the average attendance rate for home games is 83%, and not one game was played in front of a crowd less than 75% of capacity. As an away team, they attracted an average attendance rate of 73%. The lowest, and only rates below 60%, were against Blues and HPK (55 and 52 respectively), teams with overall very low home game attendance rates.

A similar story can be told about HIFK. With a home game attendance rate average of 79, even their lowest rate is still above 70%. Both teams have 7 match-ups above 80% (HIFK missing a home game against SaiPa). As a visiting team HIFK is also a clear favorite regardless where they go, with attendance rates staying below 60% only against TPS (49) and Ässät (59), and a visit to play against Pelicans still to take place. Four match-ups with HIFK as the away team rate above 90%.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are teams that cannot draw in the fans home or away. Blues is averaging at 56%, with 9 different match-ups below 60%. As an away team, they only break 80% against HIFK (85, a team with very strong home team demand and a local rival), JYP (84, another team with strong home demand) and SaiPa (86, solid demand at home with 6 match-ups above 80%). Another weak performer is KalPa, although the other way round. Where Blues couldn’t get the demand up at home, KalPa only dropped below 60% in 6 match-ups out of all 13, and even broke 80% in one. But that was against Kärpät. The average attendance rate for KalPa at home was 65%. As an away team, they managed to keep the average practically the same, at 64%, but that was helped by the strong home crowds when visiting HIFK (83), JYP (84) and Kärpät (89). In 7 match-ups the attendance rate remained below 60%.

I do want to bring up TPS, although it seems the club has taken enough of a beating both on and off the ice this season. They do start at a disadvantage when talking simply in terms of attendance rate, by playing in the biggest arena this season. The abysmal performance on the ice isn’t exactly helping. The fall season average attendance rate for TPS at home is 50%, and even that is helped by the sole out-of-pattern attendance for the season opener against Kärpät. That game was attended by 10 362 people. To put it in perspective, the average attendance without that game against Kärpät is 5570 people. In 11 out of the 13 possible match-ups TPS has remained under 60%, with the lowest being 34% against KalPa (disclaimer: only one game).

But here’s the truly interesting thing about TPS: they attract people when playing outside of their home town. Having visited all the other teams in the league during the fall, not one of those match-ups drop under the 60% attendance rate. In fact, they have an average of 73%, which is second highest in the league, tied with Kärpät and Sport, and only behind HIFK. Out of these three teams, HIFK and Kärpät have strong pull both home and away as discussed above, and Sport is the new team added to the league for this season and thus expected to stir up interest.

What about last year then: was it so much better?

As mentioned above, many of these figures are from single games, so too far-reaching analysis is strongly discouraged. However, if compared to similarly calculated attendance rates from last season, something interesting again occurs. HIFK and Kärpät displayed similar figures in 2013, no doubt boosted by their strong brands. Another solid performer was Jokerit, attracting an average of 80% attendance rate as a visiting team and 65% at home (notably their home arena capacity was 13 349).

As for aforementioned TPS, already in 2013 they drew in the crowd as a visiting team. But they performed poorly in terms of home game attendance with an average of 44%, with 61% the highest. It is intuitively pleasing to claim this is due to their large home arena, as that is bound to bring down the relative attendance. And there is no doubt some truth to that, as their average attendance is 5150. That’s more than full capacity for 4 teams in the league at the moment, three last season. So maybe TPS is simply playing in an arena far too big for them?

Both last season and this, the average attendance rates varied more when considering home team averages than with visiting team averages. This would suggest that home team demand variables have larger impact on the attendance than visiting team, which is not surprising. How much that is the case will be returned to later.

Overall it would seem the media outcry has been correct: the attendance has fallen in terms of attendance rate. Fall 2013 saw a league average attendance of 72% whereas this season the fall attendance stayed at 68%. This despite the fact that the team with the largest home arena, Jokerit, left to play in the KHL, and was replaced by Sport, a team with a capacity one third of that. But on the other hand, a team with an average home attendance of 9252 was replaced by a team with home attendance average of 3370. League-wide, the attendance average dropped from 4974 to 4295. Which leads to only one more conclusion: someone is picking up the slack.

Feb. 10: Edited to clear up some bad wording.