SBJ/December 25 - 31, 2006/This Weeks News

League tries to keep positive gate trend going

Six weeks ago, the Buffalo Sabres developed a waiting list for season tickets. It’s the first list of its kind for the team in more than a decade, and it already includes more than 1,000 names.

The interest in the Sabres, driven by their on-ice success in 2005-06, has helped the team increase ticket sales by more than 25 percent this season, lifting average attendance to 18,690. Their double-digit growth leads the league and has been a bright spot for the NHL as it tries to retain the interest of fans who returned after the lockout to help it achieve record attendance last year.

So far this season, attendance has slipped by 1.5 percent, with 15 of 30 teams seeing a decline in attendance. Attendance, though, is up 1.3 percent from 2003-04, the season before the lockout.

“It was a fairly unique phenomenon coming back from a full-year shutdown,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “Bottom line, it’s up from every other year in our history. We’re pleased with where we are.

“Could it be better in some markets? Yes.”

The St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes have seen ticket declines of double-digit percentages compared with last year. Another team that’s faced a decline is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though the team boasts the league’s second-strongest regional TV ratings and two of its top young players in Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin, its attendance has fallen by 2.8 percent to 16,064 per game.

Daly said those numbers were a reaction to a disappointing 2005-06, and he expected attendance would increase as the team’s performance improves.

Strong, double-digit growth by the Carolina Hurricanes, up 19 percent (17,061 per game), and the Anaheim Ducks, up 12 percent (15,417), has helped the league keep attendance close to where it was last year with a little more than half the season remaining.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we stay where we are,” Daly said. “If it’s going to go one direction or another, my best bet is it will close that gap a bit, the reason being that our playoff race is as close as it’s been in our history.”

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