Following the expiration of the National Hockey League’s collective bargaining agreement, a month prior to beginning of the 2012–13 NHL season, owners declared a lockout. The NHL season is supposed to start October 11. The season will not happen at least anytime soon. So…this leaves all of the lacrosse fans, writers, players and announcers wondering, “Will the NHL lockout help NLL attendance?” History shows there’s no conclusive evidence that it will help attendance.
While players like Alex Ovechkin are playing overseas, people will begin to speculate how business will compensate for the lack of hockey exposure and revenue opportunities here at home in the States and Canada. Performance hockey and lacrosse manufacturer, Bauer, thinks it can rebound from the NHL lockout with lacrosse play. This is predicated on the speculative assumption that more fans will be attending National Lacrosse League games. It makes sense to assume this since hockey won’t be occurring in the same arenas as lacrosse this season. My friend who used to work for the Stealth when they were in San Jose said their biggest problem was competing with the San Jose Sharks for fans. I understand why one could think this, but it’s still conjection. Let’s take a look at the data.
The last time the NHL had a lockout was in the season of 2004-2005. Just looking at the 2004-2005 indoor season it doesn’t look like the lockout had a big impact.
Average fans per game (2004-2005)
2005: 10,400 (a 3.1% increase over 2004)
2006: 10,804 (a 3.8% increase over 2005)
However, two big milestones occurred in the 2004/2005 season:
12-11-04: New pre-season attendance record set (Minnesota vs. Colorado)
2005: Average attendance was 10,400 (a 3% increase over 2004 10,088)
Just by looking at these numbers, the NLL’s attendance increased each year. 3.1% in 2005 from the previous year and 3.8% increase in 2006 from 2005. There was even a pre-season attendance record set. But the increase in attendance doesn’t take other variables in to account. For example, Minnesota was in its first year as a team in 2004/2005. The Gait Brothers re-united in Colorado that year, which created a lot of buzz. Several expansion teams in 2006 (Edmonton Rush and Portland Lumberjax) came in to the league. The NHL would go on to have a season in 2005/2006 and that year’s NLL attendance continued to increase. Moreover, the NLL would go on to set an attendance record with more than 1 million fans.
That said, NLL attendance numbers would continue to rise even without the lockout. This was a time of growth and excitement for not just the NLL, but also lacrosse in general. Lacrosse participation as a whole increased in the 2000’s. There were 172,091 more people playing lacrosse in 2006 compared to 2001. Lacrosse was on its way up without the NHL lockout.
In 2007, US Lacrosse states there was a 12.8% growth in participation. This is two years after the lockout. Mind you, from 1996 to 2006, a total of 152 new NCAA lacrosse programs were added. It can be argued that the NHL lockout of ’04/’05 helped guide the positive growth, but I highly doubt it. Lacrosse has been on a hockey stick curved trajectory all on its own.
Below is a chart showing attendance patterns for the Toronto Rock and Buffalo Bandits over the past 14 seasons. Please note that while Toronto peaked in attendance in 2005, the NHL lockout year, they only saw a 1.2% increase from 2004 to 2005 — nothing significant. And while Buffalo saw a larger 15.2% increase, they’ve also seen continued growth over time, so it is hard to say whether that correlates with the NHL lockout. I’ve highlighted 2005 in dark yellow and 2004 and 2006 (the years around it) in a lighter yellow.
I pulled data from the Toronto and Buffalo media guides available online. The reason I picked Buffalo and Toronto is because they both have established NLL teams, but they are also hockey towns. This is just a snapshot, nothing definitive. But I think it does show that there isn’t any hard evidence that the NHL lockout has an impact on attendance. Something to also note is that I did not include televised games and media coverage in my analysis.
Some people may agree with my report while others may disagree. Regardless, 2012-2013 will be a season to pay close attention to. Do you think the NHL lockout will improve NLL attendance? Please leave your comments below.