Ottawa almost sold out Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
I know of no way to prevent this blog from initially coming across as judgmental or snarky, even though I promise it’s not. (That lede is a bad start, I admit.) Some hockey fans are going to use it to point and laugh, and some Senators fans are going to get naturally defensive. But this is a real thing, and any failing most definitely does not lie with the fans.
The Sens drew an announced 18,111 fans for their Game 6 win over the Penguins last night, a few hundred shy of the building’s listed capacity of 18,572 (though in reality it’s a bit higher, as bigger crowds than that have been announced this postseason). An hour before puck drop, you could’ve had your choice of seats at the box office—though mostly the worst seats in the house.
The Senators’ attendance has been the talk of the postseason since drawing just 16,744 for Game 1 against the Rangers in the second round.
“It’s very disturbing,” said owner Eugene Melnyk on Monday night, when thousands of tickets remained unsold.
So what’s the deal? It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a case of bad fans, as a particularly ignorant Jeremy Roenick did last week. (Roenick was bashing the Senators for not selling out Game 3...which they did.) But that’s a screwed-up way to look at what is ultimately a transaction. A live hockey game is a product. If consumers do not want to purchase that product, that does not make them bad consumers.
There’s an expectation among some around the game—Roenick is merely representative—that a team on the verge of a Stanley Cup final ought to sell itself. That’s obviously wrong—the evidence is the empty seats—and pretending otherwise only serves to make you feel superior. This wouldn’t happen in Toronto, someone’s saying. Well, no shit, Ottawa’s not Toronto. (If I were forced to have a take here—which I most vehemently am not—it’s that the real “bad fans” are the ones who continue to pay absurd ticket prices to watch a crappy team and give ownership no reason to try to improve the product.)
There are real obstacles to filling this building. The Senators’ arena is way out in the suburbs of what is already only the sixth largest population center in Canada, and a government town to boot. In rush hour, that’s at least a half-hour drive from downtown.
These games aren’t cheap; the least expensive tickets available in this series started at $120, and even parking prices were jacked up for the playoffs. Let’s say you’ve got a family. Do you really want to spring for something like 600 bucks on tickets and parking and concessions to sit in the very last row of an arena, when you could see better for free from your couch?
Then there’s a generalized resentment of the owner. That bitterness didn’t come from nowhere, and there’s nothing more understandable than not wanting to put even more money in the pockets of a billionaire who doesn’t spend to the cap.
If you’re a fan, there are lots of good reasons to stay home. And yet it’s the fans who unfairly catch the shit for this. If there’s one thing that should not come from this discussion, it’s Ottawa taxpayers shelling out for a downtown arena. If Melnyk wants a new building to reap sellouts and charge higher ticket prices and pull in more revenue, the country’s 79th richest man can pay for it himself.
In the meantime, let’s dispense with the fictions about what makes a place a “hockey town.” (Hint: it’s not cold weather.)
“The thing is, we’re snobs, right?” asked NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman. “In Canada we think we’re like the hockey people and don’t talk to us about our sport.
“If that had happened in Arizona or Carolina or anywhere, you name it, we’d be killing them. We would absolutely be killing them.”
(The comparison isn’t inapt. Expansion only brought the modern Senators into being in 1992, making them just four years older than the Coyotes and five years older than the Hurricanes. This is a franchise that a lot of NHL fans remember not existing, and that has really only had one full generation to set down roots.)
The thing is, Ottawa is getting killed for this. And the fans, sick of this being used as a taunt and of having their defensive-minded team being called “boring,” have reacted as you’d expect. Sitting between Toronto and Montreal, Ottawa is so used to hearing shit like this, even beyond hockey. If they’re gonna hear this when both those cities’ teams are golfing and the Senators are a game away from the finals, you damn well bet the fans are going to be defensive about it.
I’d urge Senators fans to ignore it all—what do you care if some rando in Toronto thinks your fandom is lacking, or if your rich guy owner isn’t maximizing his profits?—though I know that’s easier said than done.
I’d also urge everyone to stop thinking of fandom as something quantifiable, or of attendance as any sort of effective measure. If a fan does not want to pay to attend a game, that fan is 100 percent not at fault—there are no obligations here, or for any fan of any team at any time. If a company isn’t providing a product or service that fans are willing to pay for, the failing is on the company and its executives—the NHL and Melnyk, here—and it’s up to them to figure out where they went wrong.