NBA and NHL attendance

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There’s been a pretty active discussion in the blogsophere about the shrinking disparity in attendance between the NBA and NHL. In essence, it appears the NHL since the beginning of last season has almost completely closed the attendance gap, with both league’s averaging just over 17,000 per home game.

I generally try to avoid analyzing attendance figures until at least one-third of the way through the season. Drawing any conclusions about attendance after only a half-dozen home games always strikes me as a bit unfair, and I’ve never liked to compare leagues because of the differences in markets and arena size.

But I did crunch some numbers that might help explain why the NHL and NBA are about neck-and-neck now.

The big thing I noticed was that the NBA has outpaced the NHL in attendance at the top of the rankings but the NHL looks stronger at the bottom. In other words, the NBA has some markets at the bottom (Memphis, Philly) that are really struggling to draw fans, while the NHL’s worst teams still draw respectable crowds. And the NBA’s strong attendance at the top isn’t enough to offset the NHL’s strength at the top.

Here are the figures:

2007-08
NBA Average of Bottom 5: 13,335
NHL Average of Bottom 5: 14,715
Difference of almost 1,400, or 10 percent.

NBA Average of Top 5: 20,944
NHL Average of Top 5: 20,007
Difference of 937, or about 4.7 percent.

2008-2009
NBA Average of Bottom 5: 12,660
NHL Average of Bottom 5: 13,764
Difference of 1,104, or 8.7 percent

NBA Average of Top 5: 21,002
NHL Average of Top 5: 20,221
Difference of 771, or 3.8 percent.

A couple things to note: 

- NBA and NHL official attendance is based on “tickets distributed,” not tickets sold or the number of fans in seats. It is widely known that there are some teams, particularly those toward the bottom of the attendance rankings, that will give away large chunks of tickets. Whether it’s an intentional effort to boost official attendance or not is unclear, but I have been told that NHL teams are generally a bit worse — not a lot worse, but a bit worse — about doing this.

- There is reason to believe some NBA teams will see better attendance as the season goes on. The Sixers, ranked 27th, can blame some of their attendance woes on the euphoria over the Phillies as well as their own slow start. They are a decent team with a strong basketball tradition and should rebound. I also wouldn’t worry too much about Indiana (26th) and Sacramento (29th), which have proven to be strong NBA markets over the years. The NHL, however, has some teams at the bottom that you kind of worry about. The Islanders (30th) and Devils (25th) should be OK, but you have to wonder about Nashville (28th), Florida (26th) and Atlanta (27th).

- Tim Lemke

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