What Did You Think: The Attendance Issue

A little over a week ago, I posited the question as to reasons why the Devils' attendance is as it is and what should be done to improve it.  I was floored by the amount of effort put into the responses and discovered that marketing really isn't going make some of the base problems go away.  I recommend you all check them out.  I thank each and every one the commenters from the original post.  If you're one of them, give yourself a pat on the back if you can reach that far.   What follows is my rather long-winded attempt to tie in what you thought into what the Devils could or could not do about it.

 

First off, and I'm really embarrassed to have underestimated this one being a lifetime New Jerseyan, transportation is still a major issue.  See, I live in Edison and there are 3 train stations easily accessible to me.  Getting to the Rock is a lot easier than the going to the Meadowlands (and thanks to supporting the NY Red Bulls, I still know all too well about going to the Meadowlands) - for me.  For others, the trip is even more difficult.  Parking is nearly twice as expensive as Continental Airlines Arena ever was in some lots and is more limited.  If you're going with a group whose willing to share costs, then it's not so bad - but how many can be in such a situation? 

Moreover, taking to the train for some people may mean driving a good distance to get to a train station, taking a 1 and half hour or more train ride, or taking the train only to find out that you're at the Broad Street station and not Penn station.  And that's just going to the game, going home could be even more of a challenge as the night goes on and the trains aren't as constant.   While it's easy for me and many others who live relatively close to the, Northeast Corridor, Raritan Valley, PATH Train, or the Coast Line; northern Jerseyans have a longer trek that could may make it more difficult than to just speed up/down the Turnpike or Route 3 to the Meadowlands.  Those living along the Passiac Valley line don't even get direct access to Newark. Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that there is easy access to the arena and I do believe it is more accessible; but it's not easy across the board for the Devils' fans.  There is a Light rail that goes within Newark between the Penn and Broad St. stations, but I couldn't tell you how reliable or timely it is.

And unfortunately, I don't think there is really much the Devils can do about that.  They are certainly not going to force NJTransit to do much of anything short of throwing a ton of money at them and saying please.  I can't imagine Vanderbeek or the organization alone can request more trains or more convientent times for 41+ nights a year.   Perhaps they can work with Newark about the Newark Light Rail; but I'm just assuming the city has a say in that as well.  I don't know about shuttles to and from Broad St. as well; one could argue the Light Rail would make that unnecessary.  Outside of, well, advertising that there is a Light Rail that runs; I can't see the Devils doing much on this issue.  And even then, do we really want to see the Devils market the Light Rail and, not, say, the team?

The second issue brought up is the city itself.  Basically, it has a stigma of not being a great place to go.  I can sort of attest to that as if you asked me a few years ago whether or not I wanted to go to Newark at night, I'd say, "No, why would I want to go to Newark?"   Now that the Devils are there, well, I have a rather big reason to go to Neark.  The city has understood this I think, by ensuring that there is a solid police presence by the arena.   Not as massive as it was, say, in November 2007; but that's because there hasn't been too many incidents that I know of that had to have required such a presence.  Newark has dangerous parts to be in at night, I'm sure; but the area surrounding the arena and to-and-from the train station is safe.  Still, outside of going to the game, there's not a lot nearby to do.  The Brick City Bar and Grill is open (and I recommend it), but as far as anything nearby - well, there's the Gateway Center and the station.  I couldn't tell you what else there is to do. 

Again, this is something that the Devils really can't control.  Time and businesses benefiting from the arena will do more to drive the surrounding area to lose its stigma and provide more pre-game and post-game options.

So let's consider the third point, one the Devils can certainly control.  Ticket prices.  I think it's generally agreed that they are too much, but what surprises me is where.  It's not the lower bowl sections, and they usually have a good crowd on most nights.  I guess it's because some are season ticket holders, some are corporate seats, and so they get used quite a bit.  But what I've noticed and I'm sure you all have noticed is how expensive some sections in the upper bowl are.   The box office prices for the mezzanine are $100!  The balcony are $95 a seat; and the seats behind that front row are $65!  Even the sections right next to the mezzanine are $95 a game!  Now, I've sat in those areas last season at times and they are great seats.  But even Vanderbeek has to be wondering on some nights why some entire sections are nearly desolate! It's even more glaring when the 200 sections above them are usually packed.

Maybe it makes financial sense, but I personally don't think it's good business to charge the same or more for upper section seats than what I could get in the ends of the lower bowl.  Why wouldn't I just get lower bowl seats?  Or, rather, why wouldn't I just stay home if it's going to cost me three digits of monetary value to go to a game in higher seats?  The plans and the College night promotions are good ideas; but I think long term the Devils need to cut these prices down.  Not necessarily a huge reduction, perhaps $10-20 to start and see how that plays out along with the promotions (note: the Devils should definitely do college night more often, it brings in not only more people, more "active people").  If and when the Devils notice these sections are filling up more regularly, then they should raise prices.  I think that would at least be a good start, but it's a journey, not a process.  And given how things are economically, the Devils may be forced to do this sooner rather than later anyhow.  Ticket prices is still an area of improvement and opportunity for the Devils to expand their fan base while pleasing their current one a little bit.

The fourth point gets to what I originally thought was the major problem: a lack of marketing of the team.  And some sobering points are raised and I am now tending to agree: showing off a player or some sick goals or some big hits may not make the difference.  The general interest in hockey would be assumed in that case and that's a pretty big one to make.  If someone thinks that hockey is the game where guys on ice fight each other, then showing them, say, Dainius Zubrus' 4 goal night isn't going to convince them to realize that they bleed Devils red.  Showing Martin Brodeur's top 25 saves of 2007-08 may not strike a chord.  Replaying Zubrus' stickless demolishing of a Ranger in the playoffs over and over is something I'd love, but others may not even care.

Access to hockey, I think, has never been better.  You have NHL Center Ice. You have streaming video and audio is available online both legal and "otherwise." You have the rise of hockey blogs, both by fans like me and reporters like Gulitti and Chere.  You have message boards to discuss the game that form communities.  You can get DirecTV and bypass cable companies controlling your access - and even there you can likely pay for what you want to see.  You have people making their own highlights on Youtube and Dailymotion.  You have the team's and leagues' own developments online.  If you want to get into a NHL team, it's pretty easy to do so. 

So if you're not able to get into it now, it's likely that either A) you haven't seen it or enough of it or B) you're just not interested.  The Devils and any pro sports team in the world can work on A; but there's not a thing they can do about B. 

Ultimately, while I think the Devils should at least consider trying to put Brodeur's or Elias' or Parise's face and formerly introduce them to the New Jersey area, this sort of thing may come down to us.   Bringing a friend or telling them yourself about how great hockey is/the Devils are may have a larger effect on someone than a commercial or a print ad or, say, a blimp.  Just by exposing someone to the whole experience can at least trigger the passion. 

Let me give you a personal example.  In the spring of 2007, I made some friends with some guys from Germany during one of my last projects in college.  One of them was a big sports fan like me and he wanted to see (and did) the local teams. The Devils at the end of the 2006-07 season, the Devils in the playoffs (Game 5 loss to Ottawa, yes, the last game of the CAA), the NY Yankees, the NY Giants (preseason), the NY Red Bulls, and Rutgers football.  Of these, he was the most animated about Rutgers football and that's quite curious.  Again, he's from Germany where the colleges don't have sports of the same level as it is here.  And it's a sport he wasn't unfamiliar with but was confused about how big it was at the college level. Yet, I explained it to him the best that I could: the history of Rutgers and football, where the first game was played and how it's just the back parking lot of the College Ave. gym now.  How the football team was mired until recently.  But it wasn't until he went to a game that he "got it."  The student sections. The traveling fans. The marching band. The game of football played with passion.  He was really into this. He enjoyed the other games, but I mean he got into this - cheering on a school he has literally no ties to!  Why? Because he got exposed to what it's like, and he understood.  Not everyone does, and sometimes not initially, but he got it in an instant.

That wasn't just a tale of football evangelism (there's a term for you), it's a perfect example of what bringing someone to any game can do. Maybe they have a good time, or maybe they become a big fan. It can do far more than what the team does - outside of playing well - in terms of promoting the game.  And why not? I think the Devils game is great experience, and I still believe the Devils need to make the effort to get others at least be aware about the team.   I will say this, the Devils are targeting and supporting youth hockey in the state, which is excellent.  Those kids will remember this and may become/remain as fans.   It's also great for the sport in general, to have big club endorse it in someway.  They should definitely continue it.  But for those not in youth hockey, the most direct path to making fans may be coming from us - how we show our passion and how we share it can make the difference in the long term.  Of course, if it's cheaper to go to a game, it'll be a lot easier to take a friend or two, Devils...

Overall, this remains a complex issue with not really any direct answers other then cutting ticket prices (which is unlikely by its nature) and attempting more promotion - and hoping that we, the fans, do some of the "work" ourselves by showing off our favorite team.  In any case, it has been a wonderful exercise and if there's anyone in the organization reading this (or anyone at all), I thank you and hope you at least got a bit of a better understanding of what some fans think.

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