The Ottawa Senators Have An Attendance Problem

Attendance in Ottawa has been a topic of concern for fans this season and from the photos sent in by the blog’s followers on Twitter, you can kind of get a sense of how chronically problematic ticket sales have been this season.

From the home opener not selling out to this past Friday’s embarrassing low of 15,589 – which also has the distinction of being Ottawa’s least attended home game since October 4, 2008 when the Pittsburgh Penguins only drew 13,699 in… Stockholm, Sweden – it’s early in the season and we’ve already reached a number of low points.

You’d have to go back a little further to the 2003/04 season to find lesser numbers:

- November 1, 2003 vs Buffalo – 15,445

- November 6, 2003 vs Edmonton -15,216

- November 13, 2003 vs Columbus – 15,297

Since then, the Senators have fared better at the gate, but this season, it certainly appears as though Ottawa’s average attendance is well below what is has been in previous years.

What the first six home games drew:

Game #
Date
Opponent
Attendance
7
October 17
New Jersey
18867
8
October 19
Edmonton
18623
10
October 25
Anaheim
17590
11
October 27
San Jose
17145
13
November 1
NY Islanders
15589
14
November 3
Dallas
18106

Doesn't really look like it's getting any better. Although I’m sure Thursday night’s game versus Montreal should sellout (thanks Habs fans!). I used the "Let me pick my seats" option off the Capital Tickets website to check out the status of Saturday’s matinee game versus the Florida Panthers, and I’ve estimated that there are in excess of 5,000 seats still available.

Yeesh.

Considering Cyril Leeder has repeatedly stated over the past few months that season ticket sales are at their highest level since 2007-08, “up from 11,000 and a bit” during the 2012-13 season to 12,100 now, so what gives?

Cynics are more than willing to point out that Ottawa has long held a reputation for being a bandwagon town that only shows up when there’s an event happening.

There are also popular refrains from fans remain. Why is the arena is in Kanata? I hate the traffic! The games are too expensive, so I prefer watching the games on my big screen HD television while sitting on the couch at home where the beer is cheaper.

Although going to a Senators game isn’t by any means cheap, as Amelia from Silver Seven pointed out, relative to what others around this country are paying to watch their favorite teams, the cost of going to a game in Ottawa could be a lot worse.

Of course, there are also a variety of new factors that also complicate the problem.

The ongoing repairs to the 417 in both directions. The decision to play hardball with the beloved Alfie. Eugene Melnyk for crying broke and making a spectacle of himself while pushing the casino agenda. And Ottawa’s slow start coupled with a horrifically shitty schedule filled with Friday night games and weekend matinees that is assuredly the fault of the NHL…

… or maybe it’s not?

Wait, what?

Via a Ken Warren story from last week, Sens President Cyril Leeder discussed Ottawa’s scheduling requests to the league.

“Saturday is the best day of the week, but (attendance) doesn’t seem to change based on whether it’s Saturday night or Saturday afternoon. What we do see is more ancillary spending on beverage and food during night games."

“When we sent in our available dates (to the NHL), we gave them a lot of Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sundays and a few more afternoon games than in the past. Afternoon games are usually pretty big draws, but it’s really a bit of a Rubik’s Cube to get it just right.”

I don’t know. Maybe he’s just being guarded and politically correct because he realizes he has to sell tickets for this schedule, or maybe he simply doesn’t want to throw the league under the bus. Whatever the case for him downplaying the lack of Saturday night home games this season (note: the Sens have three), I can’t imagine it is possible that a professional hockey franchise in Canada thinks it’s a good idea not to play on a Saturday night; especially after he admits that the organization sees revenues increase on food and booze consumption.

But then again, if season tickets are rising but attendance figures are in the decline, what’s really going on?

Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the Senators have simply stopped giving away as many discounted or free tickets as they have in the past. I mean, with Melnyk crying poor and using the Senators financial situation as a rallying cry for fans to get onboard the idea of putting a casino adjacent to the Canadian Tire Centre, wouldn’t it make sense to make the ticket sale issue as transparent as possible?

Regardless of what you think of Melnyk’s casino bid, his pursuit of one really gets at the root of the issue for the Senators.

The issue of the arena isn’t necessarily the location or the traffic. Even if the arena had been built downtown (note: you can read more on why the Canadian Tire Centre is in Kanata here), fans would still complain about parking and traffic because everyone in this city seemingly drives. I can’t say with any certainty that the parking and infrastructure to support the traffic in and out of the arena would be better than it currently is. Instead of driving 40-plus minutes from Orleans to Kanata down the 417, you conceivably could have spent 40 minutes trying to escape the traffic and the lights of the downtown core.

But, no one is disputing the fact that a downtown arena would have offered a better game day experience by being walking distance from a variety of restaurants and pubs.

In this franchise’s history, nothing really has helped create that fantastic game day experience in Kanata and you need that allure to draw people and make them want to come watch a game live.

Sure, hiring someone who worked in-game entertainment for the Montreal Canadiens may help, but ultimately, where the Senators and the City have really failed is with the development of the area surrounding the Canadian Tire Centre.

It’s downright embarrassing.

From the poor infrastructure to the commercial buildings that enshroud the arena, there is simply no compelling reason to spend an afternoon or day near the rink awaiting the start of a game. It’d be one thing if the Kanata Centrum was adjacent to the property, but it’s not. Instead we’re treated to some hi-tech gas station, a cop shop and an autopark.

Not playing on Saturday nights certainly affects the creative ways that the team could try and attract more people to the rink early — I'm thinking organized tailgates, craft beer festivals, a street hockey tournament in the parking lot, and massive BBQ/ribfest types of things. 

Nevertheless, you can say what you want about Melnyk, and as someone who’s been pretty critical of his candour and tactics, I have. But you have to give him some credit for targetting the issue and attempting to make the Canadian Tire Centre an entertainment destination, beyond the attraction of the largest parking lot in eastern Ontario.

At the end of the day, at least to me, the reason you buy a ticket is to watch the game with 19,000 other people. Just not the same when you look to the left and right and whole sections are empty.

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