[EDIT: Derek here. This is exactly the kind of thing that I was talking about in my rant last night about the attendance of the game being just over 11,700. Great article!]
Lately, I've been reading a lot of comments left on certain blog postings that indicate that Denver doesn't deserve the Avalanche and should be moved to a town that appreciates them. I'd like to take the opportunity to tell these pricks to shove it!
Attendance for Avs games has struggled this year and apparently, a year of this disqualifies Denver from having an NHL team. While I hate to be the one to make excuses, any individual with a quarter of a brain could see the many circumstances that have led to this. Denver is not hockey stupid and anyone who doesn't agree has obviously never been here and doesn't know their ass from Kirk Douglas's chin.
As someone who plays hockey regularly in the Denver area, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is not a niche sport or a cult following here. Ice time is extremely hard to come by and there are often too many teams in our divisions and never not enough. I am always to trying to rent ice for team practice and it's frequently hard to get it during normal hours. If we want to practice at 1 am, sometimes we can get that. There are boatloads of youth hockey programs that also compete for ice as kids are very passionate about the game.
There are already quality college teams at Denver University and Colorado College as well as the Colorado Eagles CHL team in Windsor/Loveland, all of which draw extremely well. The Avalanche sold out nearly 500 consecutive games over a ten-year period. The point is that this area has proved it will support the NHL.
Now for the excuses. Let me start off by saying that I am just as distressed as anybody over the sagging attendance. There's a great young team out there and it's not drawing nearly as well as it should be. But it is way too simplistic to say that it's not a hockey market. Let me also state that there were plenty of attendance problems in several Canadian cities not name Toronto and Montreal in the late 90s and early 2000s and nobody accused those places of being bad hockey markets. They were simply savvy consumers. I don't understand why a market that had nearly 500 consecutive sellouts doesn't get the same consideration.
The truth of the matter is that a losing team is not going to draw well unless it's name is the Toronto Maple Leafs. I know what a die hard's answer here is: you should stand by your team, win or lose. Hey, I watch every Avalanche game religiously, but paying any amount of money to watch a bad team in person does not give you any more character than someone who refuses to do so. Sports teams are there for our enjoyment and while we often live and die with them, there is no intelligence in being proud to support a team that makes you miserable. It's great to have an opinion and it's great to have passion, but unconditional support does not make anyone a better fan. In fact, it likely takes any motivation from ownership to put a quality team out there. As long as they've succeeded in getting you to dole out your cash for tickets and hats, they don't care. I don't understand why someone will bad mouth the management of their team but still willingly pay for season tickets and merchandise. Why pay to be miserable when you can do it for free by just watching the team on television? In fact, if a few more die hards would stop paying for seats and lining the pockets of the owners, they might give their management some motivation to actually put a team out there. Then again, there's always the Kansas City Royals.
It's important to understand that teams like the Maple Leafs and the Chicago Cubs are the exception rather than the rule. These teams know they're going to sell those tickets regardless of how horrible their team is. But have those teams go into a 40 year slump with no playoff appearances (see Cleveland Indians) and watch their attendance dwindle. Even the most religious of fan bases can only take so much.
I also try to avoid comparing the NHL (or the NBA and MLB for that matter) to the NFL. The NFL is the richest, most successful sports organization in the world and annually boasts the largest audience for a single television event in the Super Bowl. Teams also play one game a week and only eight games at home over the course of 4 month regular season. The NHL and NBA have six and half month regular seasons with 41 home games and the MLB has a six month season with 81 home games. NFL teams have a mammoth national television deal as opposed to a national television deal combined with a local television deal and they get way more promotion than the other three leagues combined. Its apples and oranges and comparisons should be infrequent. So, comparing the Avalanche to the Denver Broncos is neither here nor there.
As for the MLB and NBA, the Rockies and Nuggets have both had their peaks and valleys recently and both are still here. The point is Denver is great sports town and will continue to be one. You can call us bandwagon fans, but there are plenty of bigger cities that should earn your wrath before us. Not to pick on anyone, but the Chicago Blackhawks were horribly marketed and run for a long time and then the old ways were done away with, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane showed up and suddenly they're the hottest ticket in town. Bandwagon!
But this may seem moot because the Avs are a winning team right now. Why aren't the fans showing up? While the economy and ticket prices are somewhat viable, I don't believe that those are primary factors. They don't help matters, but there are good ticket deals to be had if one searches long enough (although having to search may not be helping either). People will go for good ticket deals that are well marketed (the holiday 4 pack appears to have sold well as the Dec. 26 game against Dallas was a sellout and the second game on Jan. 16 against New Jersey was near capacity. I think the Faceoff 4 packs and the Guys Night Out packs haven't been as well advertised.)
1. The lockout. Don't underestimate the damage that the lockout did to a number of markets. For Avs fans, Patrick Roy had already retired signifying the beginning of the end of the glory years. After the lockout, Forsberg and Foote, two extremely popular players, were gone. While both eventually returned, it wasn't the same. One by one, those cornerstones began to disappear and bad drafting and trades did nothing to replace them. No one could follow in St. Patrick's footsteps just as no one has successfully followed in John Elway's (not a Broncos-Avalanche comparison as much as it is a comparison of the importance of these two players to their respective organizations). Frankly, the teams post-lockout were just not that good. They overacheived with a couple of first round playoff wins over Dallas and Minnesota, but were quickly shown to be inferior with the second round sweeps. The blockbuster deadline deals we had grown accustomed to were a thing of the past (Theodore for Aebischer notwithstanding). The excitement was gone. The lockout cost the Avs Forsberg and Foote. Evenutually, Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay were cap casualties as well. To offer a comparison, the Red Wings were "forced" to buy out Darren McCarty, Derian Hatcher and Ray Whitney. While McCarty was a fan favorite, none of these players qualified as the kind of cornerstone player that an Yzerman or a Lidstrom would for Detroit (or a Forsberg or Foote for Colorado). Yzerman played only one more year, but the Zetterbergs and Datsyuks and winning seasons make that easier to take. (As an aside here, I'd like to point out that while Detroit has very good attendance numbers, they aren't selling out all their games either. While the economy in Motown sucks, it isn't exactly blossoming here either).
2. Sakic - You cannot be a rebuilding team and lose the face of your franchise for the last 15 years without some impact at the box office. Joe Sakic Night sold out. The fans said goodbye to their captain and got a glimpse of the future. After another game against Vancouver (albeit with less than 14,000 in attendance), the Avs promptly went on a seven game road trip and were quite easy to forget about for the casual fan. The point is that the one superstar the Avs still had was gone and the franchise had no face. There were candidates, but no one even close to the aura of Super Joe.
3. Last Place Team Rebuilding - As good as the Avs have been this year, it's easy to forget they finished LAST in the Western Conference and 28th overall in the NHL. To say that they sucked would be an affront to vacuum cleaners. They cleaned house by firing the GM and coaching staff. They brought in a first year coach and an apparent accountant GM. The buzzword of the offseason was rebuild. Then Joe Sakic retires. The fans will come stampeding now, right? Even the excitement of some young talent like Duchene and O'Reilly is still indicative of rebuilding. Future stars are stars in the future, not the present (at least in the minds of an average fan, not a die hard).
4. Road Heavy Schedule - As mentioned before, the Avs sold out Joe Sakic Night and then had a brief cup of coffee with Denver before going on a seven game road trip. The team really bonded and matured on that trip, but until December, the Avs would not have anything longer than a three game homestand (once). Even as of this writing, the Avs have played 23 home games (tied with Florida for the fewest in the league) and 28 road games (the most in the league). While anyone can just look up the schedule on the internet, it's not like the team markets itself well anyway (more on that below).
5. MARKET THE GODDAMN TEAM - This is the primary reason that I think the team is not drawing well right now. Because they had years of Sakic, Forsberg, Roy, Foote and company, the can't-do-no-wrong marketing department at KSE believed that word of mouth and fading Stanley Cup seasons would be enough. Now that all these superstars are gone, they should be marketing the Stastnys, Duchenes and Andersons. Go to a game now and you will see that the fans that do show up are very much behind the new number one goaltender and he is becoming very popular with the base. Patrick Roy was very popular outside the base. A few Stanley Cups certainly helped people notice. The current squad does not have the same playoff pedigree so more (a hell of a lot more) is required by KSE's marketing. Just once, I'd like to drive down I-25 and see a billboard with a toothless Paul Stastny or Matt Duchene or Craig Anderson. What do we have right now? Lame Avalanche Experience commercials running almost exclusively on Altitude, where viewers are already well aware of the team. Is this really the best they can do? This is now the youngest team in the NHL and is already about to top the number of wins and points it had last year in just 2/3 of the season. But apparently the marketing budget at KSE has been trimmed so Stan can buy another 0.1258% of Arsenal or whatever UK soccer team he co-owns. (As another aside, the other tenant of Pepsi Center, the Denver Nuggets, currently rank 14th in average attendance and 15 in percentage. They may be drawing better than the Avs, but they aren't exactly setting the NBA on fire and this was a team that went to the conference finals last year).
Once a concerted effort is made by the team to market itself, I think people will come out. But this entire article is written with the caveat that another 2 or 3 years of this and I won't be able to argue with those people who have nothing else to do but criticize a market they know nothing about. Until then, I know there is a great NHL market here so the naysayers can shut their pie-holes!