The New Jersey Devils have called Northern New Jersey their home for over three decades now. For the majority of that time, the team, at least to some extent, has labored to find a strong foothold in a crowded New York Metro market. With three other well-established markets within a two-hour drive of their arena, the Devils had their work cut out to carve out a niche in this market when they arrived in 1982. This year, they are drawing as many people to the arena as they ever have and filling a larger percentage of the seats than any other season by a wide margin.
Devils Attendance History
A record of the Devils yearly attendance can be found at Hockey DB here. Predictably, when the Devils had just arrived in the market in the '80s and spent a vast majority of their time stinking up the joint, they struggled to draw crowds at Brendan Byrne Arena. The Devils finally started to break through when consistent success came to the franchise starting in the early-to-mid '90s. After the dramatic seven-game Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Rangers in 1994, attendance spiked to levels previously unseen with over 16,000 fans a night, filling over 85% of what became Continental Airlines Arena. The Devils' interest would peak in 1997-98, when they filled 90% of CAA with about 17,300 spectators a night. These numbers would sink after the 1998-99 season and the Devils would not see their attendance crack 16,000 a game until this season.
As interest in hockey waned in the early 2000s, the Devils would struggle to draw those same crowds to the Meadowlands, in spite of their constant success, including two Cups in that time frame. The lost season from the 2004-05 lockout drove things down even further, with the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons being the first to drop below 75% capacity since 1992-93. Help was on the way, though, as the state-of-the-art Prudential Center in Newark had been in the works to replace the outdated CAA since prior to the 2004 lockout.
When the Rock opened, lager crowds came out to the arena, with the arena drawing more in raw numbers than the significantly-larger Continental Airlines Arena had in its last several years. As a percentage, the Devils were outpacing all but their best season at CAA in their new home for the first few years. Attendance sagged again in the dismal 2010-11 season, but rebounded with a good regular season the following year. No one would ever accuse the Devils of setting the world on fire with these numbers since moving to the Rock, but they were decent enough, hovering between 85 and 90 percent capacity.
Devils Attendance by Season since 1992-93
This season has been like no other in Devils history as far as attendance is concerned. The Devils have sold out all but three of their games this season had have averaged more people per game than any season in their history (though that number is likely to dip just below '97-98's raw numbers in the last three games with the Devils having torpedoed their season in the past few weeks). They are averaging 98.2% of the arena's capacity, far and away a record for the franchise. Even in other years following a cup win, they have failed to even approach a number like that. Their previous record was the 90.8% reached back in 1997-98.
Why You Should Temper Your Optimism Somewhat
With attendance at record highs for the team, it's easy to think this is a sign that the Devils will be packing the house at a lot more home games in the future. The fact of the matter is that the Devils have definitely had some things playing in their favor this season that could be inflating those numbers. First, in this shortened season, league-wide attendance has been up in the NHL. Whether it's because there are fewer games to go see or that they all have more bearing or any other reason, the NHL has actually managed to increase their attendance in this lockout-shortened season. Second, and perhaps more obviously, attendance could be up because the Devils were just in the Cup Finals last season and could come back to earth now that it is likely we will be seeing no such repeat playoff performance. Combine the two, and this season could just be an outlier. Maybe the team caught a wave at just the right moment and it propped up attendance to a point far above where it really should be. Going forward, especially with the Devils flaming out in a spectacular way this season, there is certainly a reason to believe next year will return to business as usual attendance-wise.
Why to be Optimistic Anyway
There are a lot of reasons, in my opinion, to be bullish on the Devils attendance going forward, however. I know people have been saying it for years, but this Devils fan base is a pretty young one. Kids who grew up with the Devils' success in the 1990s are starting to become full-time professionals with disposable incomes to throw away on things like hockey games (I, myself, am hoping to be one of those people in the next few years). Anecdotally, the Devils generated a ton of buzz with their run this past season and a lot of these types were encouraged to make the leap into the ranks of the season ticket holders this season. I would think there are a lot of people who made that leap who stick around.
Other factors to consider include the effect that the Prudential Center has on all of this. Most people consider the Rock to be a fantastic arena and the stigma of driving to downtown Newark for the games seems to have worn off for a lot of people. Getting to the arena is easier than it ever was in the Meadowlands, and the building is about 100 times nicer to boot. I think that could play a big part in being able to hold on to more season ticket-holders in the near future. And as far as the attendance being an artificial boost from a Cup run? The Devils have never seen a spike in attendance of this magnitude after any of their previous runs to the Finals, so perhaps this is something more. Maybe the Cup run was just the kick in the pants needed to get a lot of fans, especially the younger ones, in the position of being a season ticket holder. The Rock is a whole lot more fun when it's full, so maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part.
What are your thoughts on the Devils big season, attendance-wise? Just a blip on the radar or indicative of a longer stretch of financial stability? Has the team squandered any momentum they had with their nose dive this season? Sound off below. Thanks for reading.