Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Playing Below Capacity: Colorado Avalanche

Welcome to the tenth and final edition of Playing Below Capacity. This has been a series at Puck Money where I take a look at teams (as of December) that are playing below 85% capacity. All previous editions can be found here. Now, if you noticed in that first link the Avalanche weren't playing below 85% as of December, but seeing as they have slipped below teams such as New Jersey and Los Angeles, I decided to do a bonus edition of the series featuring the Avalanche. Today its off to Denver, Colorado where the Avalanche rank 24th in average attendance with 15,762 and 23rd in average capacity attendance with 87.5%. The Avs have not benefited from the Second Half Attendance Boost either, being down just a bit in both average attendance and average capacity as of Sunday.

*Note: Any "problems" that I suggest the Thrashers 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 Avalanche games on a regular basis...
  • Arena Location/Age
  • High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events
  • Metro Population
  • On Ice Product
  • Location/History of Franchise
  • Other
First, some basic facts about the Colorado Avalanche (wikipedia):
  • The Avalanche were founded in 1972 originally as the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association. The Nordiques joined the NHL in 1979, and moved to Colorado to become the Avalanche in 1995.
  • In twelve completed seasons, the Avalanche have made the playoffs an astounding eleven times. In this span, they have won the Stanley Cup twice ('96 and '01) and won a division championship eight times in a row from 1996 through 2003.
  • The Avalanche first played their home games at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver from 1995 to 1999. They have since played at the Pepsi Center, which opened in 1999.
  • The said capacity at the Pepsi Center is 18,007 for Ice Hockey.
- Arena Location/Age

Pepsi Center is just west of downtown Denver, but is in a great location in a great city. The sports road trip guys loved it, but did report that parking was at a very high level when they visited in 2001 at $40. Take a look (click to enlarge):

Pepsi Center is noted by the "A" arrow, and is located east across the river from Invesco Field and west of Coors Field. The inside of the Pepsi Center is laid out just as any other modern arena, but ask any fan that has been lucky enough to attend an Avalanche game and they will tell you it is a very nice venue (at least from my personal experience).

The age and location of the Pepsi Center is not an issue here. Denver was ranked 7th in The Sporting News Best Sports Cities in 2008, and although the teams in the city are collectively struggling, it makes the best of times even sweeter.

- High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events

According to teammarketing.com, the Avalanche rank 26th in the Fan Cost Index. The Fan Cost Index:
"The Fan Cost Index™ 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."
They are about $10 below the NHL average ticket price of $49.66 and are about $6 above the NHL average premium ticket price of $113.44. Their ticket price is up about 3% this year, nothing really too major.

In the promotions department, the Avalanche are somewhat lacking. At the same time, the demand for Avalanche tickets are usually high, but offering little deals as the team attendance dips below 16,000 for the first time in the history of the Avalanche being in Denver doesn't exactly seem logical to me.

- Metro Population

The city of Denver has over 550,000 inhabitants which centers around a metro population of around 2.5 million (statshockey.net). The two figures are relatively low in the leagues ranks, but the city is racially made up of 75% whites, which we all know is the predominant fan demographic of the NHL.

- On-Ice Product

The Avalanche are currently last place in the Western Conference, and will miss the playoffs in their 13th season in Denver for only the second time. But, the Avs will miss the playoffs for the second time in three years, which I think has a major influence on the attendance. Lets take a look at the past couple of years (click to enlarge):

As you can tell, the attendance trend directly follows the placement in the standings. My question to Avs die-hards would be why didn't the attendance jump back a little after their two-round playoff appearance last season? Hopefully someone can answer that for me because I have no idea why it wouldn't flatten or bounce back a bit.

Unfortunately, immediate turn-around from last place in the West to conference champions doesn't look likely. The face of the franchise, Joe Sakic, will be 40 next season and has been injured for most of this one. They have a very solid core in Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski, and Marek Svatos. The Avs have been plagued by injuries this year, so if management can make some smooth moves over this off-season, its not unrealistic to think that next year this club could be pushing for a playoff spot. Priority number one from an outsider looking in would be goaltending, and I think many would tend to agree with me.

- Location/History of Franchise

Compared to other editions of this series, I somewhat held back in previous sections such as the population and arena location/age. I did this because Denver is simply a great hockey town. Go back 5 to 10 years and getting Avalanche tickets was just about as likely as winning the lottery if you were an outsider. To think that the Avalanche are going to average under 16,000 this season just plain baffles me. Have Avalanche fans gotten so used to winning that at the first sign of difficult times the couch seems like a better option than a seat at the Pepsi Center? I just seriously do not get it. Gary Miller of CBS 4 Denver wonders somewhat of the same thing, but brings the oh-so general word that many struggling teams are using nowadays (I think rightly so in this situation), Is it the economy, or the Avs play? I'm gonna take the safe bet and say both, as both obviously have an influence on any fan.

Look, any team outside of Detroit would kill for the past decade or so success Colorado has enjoyed, so I do not truly understand why it seems that so many Avs fans have seem to kind of disappeared (literally at the Pepsi Center). Maybe its because I'm riding a relative high with the Rangers and Red Sox as of the past five seasons, because before that it was 10X worse. The fact of the matter is, this franchise is rich in history and tradition, and Denver is a great place to be or live if hockey is your thing.

- Other

Season Ticket Retention will be huge in Denver this off season. It will be a challenge, as season tickets to Avalanche games are pricey along with a tough on-ice product. Just take a look at the comments here from the Denver Post's All things Avs blog. Here's a line that caught my eye by commenter James Jorgon:
"Even if I had vaults full of gold bullion at my disposal I wouldn’t buy/nor renew a single season ticket for this pathetic excuse of a hockey club. The utter contempt management has shown the fans this past season by doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to improve the product on the ice is akin to them having spit in all of our faces."
So yes, I think Avs fans have gotten used to winning, a lot. But can you really blame them? Last in the west isn't exactly the same success as fighting for a playoff spot, which I'm sure every Avalanche fan would rather have this season. Also, a great Avalanche blog is the SB Nation site Mile High Hockey.

- Conclusion

The Avalanche are far better off than most clubs in the league at the moment. Their attendance is dwindling because of two main reasons. First, the on-ice play is not up to par with a fan-base that expects a playoff-caliber team year in and year out. Every club fans expects this, but when you've only been around for under 15 years and have been absolutely spoiled with success, the pressure is even more intense. Secondly, I have no doubt the economy is playing a factor, whether Avs fans like to admit it or not. Many of those commenter's claimed they were season ticket holders, and if that is true many also said that along with the Avs poor play, they have picked a terrible time to struggle.

The cure? Fix the on-ice issues as soon as possible, but in the mean time the Avalanche marketing department has to get going with good ticket deals and expanding the fan base. The great rivalry days with Detroit are over for now, as the two teams are on opposite ends of the spectrum and the thought of going to a Red Wings - Avalanche game in the late '90's is an opportunity any hockey fan would have killed for. The Avs can turn it around in the next three seasons, but at the same time I do not see an immediate bottom for this club.

So that is it for Playing Below Capacity this season. It was a good ride and I really learned a lot along the way. I plan on doing the same thing next season with some changes too. At the same time, I will ask again that if anyone has anything they are curious about as to attendance figures/issues or business figures please let me know somehow and I will do my best to unveil some information.

Thanks and more to come later.

BallHype: hype it up!

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