Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Playing Below Capacity: Columbus Blue Jackets

Welcome to the seventh edition of Playing Below Capacity, a series here at Puck Money where I take a look at teams playing below (as of December) 85% capacity. The previous six editions can be found on this page here. Today we visit Columbus, Ohio; where the Blue Jackets are fighting hard for their first playoff appearance since their inception in the NHL expansion of 2000. The Jackets are currently 27th in attendance ranked by capacity, coming in at 83%. However, they are averaging just over 15,000 a game, and are seeing over a 15% increase in second half attendance thus far.

*Note: Please remember that I'm a young college kid who thinks he knows what he's talking about. Any "problems" that I suggest the Blue Jackets have are my opinion and are most likely not 100% accurate (but close to it, if I do say so myself). Enjoy and please do comment.

Here are the ideas I came up with that could be problems with getting people to go to Jackets games on a regular basis...
  • Arena Location/Age
  • High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events
  • Metro Population
  • On Ice Product
  • Location/History of Franchise
  • Other
Some basic facts of the Columbus Blue Jackets (wikipedia):
  • The Blue Jackets were founded in 2000 as apart of the NHL Expansion. The original owner, John H. McConnell, died on April 25th, 2008. The team was handed over to his son, John P. McConnell, which went smoothly.
  • In seven completed seasons, the Jackets have yet to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season, they came in 4th in the Central Division, with their highest point total as a franchise thus far, at 80 points. The Jackets are currently 8th in the Western Conference, but are subsequently tied for 6th at the same time.
  • The Blue Jackets have played all seven series at Nationwide Arena, which opened in 2000 and was a key component of Columbus receiving a franchise.
  • The capacity at Nationwide Arena for Ice Hockey is said to be either 18,136 to 18,144.
- Arena Location/Age

Nationwide Arena is one of the NHL's nicest arenas according to the Sports Road Trip Guys and ESPN. Being only nine years old this year, I doubt a great stadium experience is driving away fans from Nationwide. Let's take a look at the location (click to enlarge):

The arena is located between the green arrow and the red "A" arrow. I wanted to zoom out so much to be able to show you how much housing area there is around Columbus. To me, it seems like a giant suburb. Nationwide Arena is right in downtown Columbus though, so the location and the arena itself is most likely a definite help in attracting fans, not a detriment.

- High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events

Blue Jackets tickets went up almost 5% this season, but are still a couple of dollars below the NHL average of $49.66, according to teammarketing.com. The average premium ticket is just under a $100, at $99.84; which is almost $15 dollars below the NHL average of $113.44. The Blue Jackets rank 16th in the Fan Cost Index, which:
comprises the prices of four (4) average-price tickets, two (2) small draft beers, four (4) small soft drinks, four (4) regular-size hot dogs, parking for one (1) car, two (2) game programs and two (2) least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps.
A "typical" night at Nationwide Arena with the Jackets will cost a family $278.66, about $10 below the NHL average. This figure is up just over 11% from last season, which is the sixth highest jump in the NHL from last season. I think the ticket prices might have something to do with relatively low attendance in Columbus due to the economic recession, but the Jackets are still below the average; which is all you can ask for. To me, if it is possible, it would be smart for the Jackets to institute a price freeze heading into next season as their on-ice product picks up.

The Blue Jackets are definitely not lacking in the promotional department, as they have plenty of great and enticing deals to visit Nationwide Arena. My favorites? The Huntington Green Seats deal, where up to 250 seats are available in the upper level for just $10. My others would be Rush CBJ, a student promotion and the Jackets Night Out Pack, where you can get two tickets, two beers, and two pizzas for $60. Tip of the hat to the Jackets marketing group.

- Metro Population

According to statshockey.net and the Columbus wikipedia page, the population in Columbus is just under 750,000, with the metro around 1.75 million. This is a relatively small metro population for an NHL city, but sports are ingrained in Columbus' genes. As I contemplated with the Carolina Hurricanes, I really think Columbus could benefit from a higher city and metro population.

- On-Ice Product

As stated, the Jackets have not made the playoffs in any of the seven seasons they have played. They are currently in the thick of a tight Western Conference rank, and the Jackets attendance numbers are reaping the benefits. Take a look at what is a great fan base being rewarded with poor on-ice play (click to enlarge):

An expansion market in the top 10, let alone 15, of attendance in its early years?! That's almost unheard of. Columbus is a great market that supports American sports such as football and baseball but also has a fond place for "foreign" sports such as Soccer (MLS' Columbus Crew) and Hockey. The Jackets front office needs to get their stuff in line and put a competitive team for the great fan base in Ohio.

Columbus is really looking good for the future, though. 22 of the 28 spots on the roster are men 29 years old or younger; while 15 of the 28 are 26 years old or younger. They have found the key to a great team in a goaltender named Steve Mason, only 20 years old. Their weakness is defense, but their good mix of young speedy forwards and veteran leadership up front combines to make a great offensive attack which defines a "new NHL" team. The Jackets should have some solid years ahead of them, but the front office will have to be smart on how they spend their money and who to keep when the youngsters come looking for new contracts.

- Location/History of Franchise

Ohio is a great state for sports. Cleveland has the market on Basketball and Baseball, but Columbus currently runs the market with Football (Ohio State), Hockey, and Soccer. Why the people of Ohio love all sports is really beyond me, but Columbus should be a key focus for the NHL in terms of "growing the game," as Bettman loves to hear. There is no immediate NBA threat in Columbus, and with Soccer and Hockey two sports that incorporate much of the same fans, Columbus is a potentially huge market for the league.

Columbus is enjoying huge TV Ratings gains this season, as well. A search at arenamaps.com in the state of Ohio returns 59 records of rinks, which shows the game is somewhat rooted into communities around the state. Also, the Miami University at Ohio and the Ohio State division 1 hockey programs are strong and growing, and have made trips recently to the NCAA Ice Hockey Tournament. The location of the franchise is great, and the struggled on-ice history clearly hurts the attendance.

- Other

The Blue Jackets are the 28th most valuable team in the NHL at $157 million. The team grew last year at an annual rate of 6%, and also brought in a revenue of $71 million, but they are still operating at a loss of $7.1 million as of last season. I think with the revival of the on-ice product this season, that loss should not be as big after this season, as I expect the ticket sales to go up along with the brand of the Blue Jackets to reap some benefits.

- Conclusion

Simply put, Columbus management has the ultimate control to steer the team into financial success. Much of the problem is on-ice, as the market in Columbus and Ohio in general is great for hockey. Sure, the franchise would clearly benefit if the metro population around Columbus swelled by another 500 or 750K, but that is wishful thinking. If I was John P. McConnell, I would sharpen up my hockey knowledge as soon as possible, and then put some pressure on General Manager Scott Howson to turn the Jackets into a consistent winner. This should fill the seats night in and night out for years to come.

That about does it here for the seventh edition of Playing Below Capacity. Next week, its down to Sunrise, Florida to visit the Florida Panthers who have been making plenty of noise in the Eastern Conference playoff race. I would personally love to see hockey fever get back into Florida as it did when John Vanbiesbrouck & Co. led the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of '96.

Come on back in a bit for some more news.


  1. Great post. I enjoyed it. Added you to my Google Reader.

  2. I hope Columbus makes the playoffs and benefits from the market. The fans in Ohio deserve it.

  3. The Jackets are winning and starting to sell out games again.