Canadian birds of a feather flock together

Before we get too far into this, let it be known that we fully support the drive to bring the NHL to Seattle. As nearly lifelong NHL fans, nothing would be better than seeing our favorite teams playing our favorite sport in our own city. This post isn’t about whether or not the NHL should come to Seattle.

The two tweets above echoed sentiments that were mentioned around Seattle the past 3 days. The Blue Jays were in town to take on the Mariners in what was an important series with playoff implications. If you watched (or like myself, were lucky enough to attend) any of the games, you experienced an almost postseason-like atmosphere. Many, many Toronto fans were in the stands and on occasion drowned out the Seattle fans.

So how does this tie in to the NHL? Well, it doesn’t. Or rather it shouldn’t. As much as we would want the NHL here, using how many Toronto fans were at a baseball game is, at worst, a terribly misleading measuring stick. At best, it’s inaccurate. The Blue Jays are in the middle of a playoff race. Go back a few years to when they weren’t as good and the numbers decline. In the last 10 seasons, the Blue Jays have ranked above #20 in average road attendance once, back in 2005. Their numbers are no doubt inflated by the series they play in Seattle and Detroit. Not to mention places like Boston who sellout no matter who they are playing.

When you have one team representing an entire country in a professional league, you are going to get fans across that country. There were probably some fans from Toronto at Safeco Field this week but the majority were likely from BC or Alberta, taking advantage of the proximity to see what is basically Team Canada play in Seattle. The NHL has 7 Canadian teams and, therefore, the country is much more fragmented in terms of whom they support. The baseball numbers for one team won’t necessarily translate to hockey numbers across 7 teams.

But let’s take a look at this from a fan’s viewpoint. Sure, it’s great to see Safeco 2/3 to 3/4 full for a mid-week series but do you want visiting fans to be the majority of that crowd? If you watch any Phoenix or Florida NHL games, you know what that looks and sounds like in a hockey rink.

Those aren’t playoff games. They are early to mid season games, much like the Blue Jays-Mariners series this week.

Maybe the baseball games are an indication of something. But perhaps of not what a fan would want it to be. If you would be satisfied with a Canucks-Metros game sounding almost like a Vancouver home game, then that’s fine. (See a Maple Leafs-Sabres game in Buffalo as an example.) If you would welcome Sharks, Bruins, Kings or Avalanche fans who can’t get tickets to their own rink and come up here because it is cheaper, great.

If you’re relying on visiting fans to fill your arena, however, your business model is flawed. Consider this season, where the Canucks have sped through their season ticket waiting list. Now, those that before would have had to travel to see Vancouver play due to a sold out Rogers Arena, can now get tickets to see them at home. Then the hypothetical Seattle NHL team would see a drop in attendance without Canucks fans needing to drive to Seattle.

Personally, while I enjoy the atmosphere of a playoff game or a rivalry game, I’d much rather have the home team represent the large part of a crowd during a regular season game. Sure, the Canadiens and Panthers are in the same division but they aren’t what most would call rivals. It’s cheaper, warmer, and easier for a fan in Montreal to see the Habs play in Florida in December than at home. Chicago and Phoenix aren’t even in the same division and yet that crowd sounds like it is split 50/50 if not pro-Blackhawks.

But there is one mitigating factor that almost renders my opinion invalid: the business side. If you asked the owners of any team if they’d rather have an arena 3/4 full with their own fans or a sellout with opposing fans, they will take the sellout every time. When it comes to sports as a business, which is what they are, money will always win. The TBirds demonstrated this in the playoff series against Everett when they apparently sought out the alternating games format to ensure that there would be a Tuesday home game in the series. Visiting fans money spends the same as home fans. It all goes to the team bottom line and when you have the dollars stacked up, you can’t tell whose is whose.

I think we should aim for something much loftier and admirable. You need to build a foundation of fans of the home team. This is where the Seattle NHL team may have an uphill battle. Hockey is liked here and, for the most part, has been well attended. But because there has been no local team to support, fans have had to adopt other teams to root for. Check out any night during the NHL season at the Angry Beaver bar and you can see that there are a wide variety of teams supported around here. But that can be overcome with the right marketing, the right team and the right people running it. You may still have the fan that supports the Sharks but they are rooting for the Seattle team all the nights they aren’t playing each other.

If there is a local team that one should look towards to see inspiration for an NHL team in Seattle, it’s not the Mariners, it’s the Sounders. If you can build an organic, homegrown fan base like that, you will be successful no matter how well the rest of the league is doing or how many opposing fans want to show up.