In remarks given yesterday at the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce’s Business to Business Expo, Howard Baldwin, the new owner of the Hartford Wolfpack (or CT Whale) and former Whalers owner, said he’s no longer skeptical of the Hartford hockey market.
This, to someone who still remains skeptical of the market potential, seemed like an odd thing to say when half way through the article you find out Hartford is 22nd in AHL attendance with an average of 3,589 fans per game.1 On first reading that stat and Howard’s statements it looked like just another case of Howard being delusional about Hartford’s ability to get an NHL franchise.
However, instead of instantly writing Howard off as someone with serious seller’s remorse, I decided to dig around in attendance statistics and see what the market has looked like over the last five years (as far back as I could go). I also decided to look at attendance not only for the Hartford Wolfpack, but also for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Springfield Falcons, both teams within an hour’s drive of Hartford.
Can (or Should) We Read Anything Into the Statistics?
Before the stats, let me make a few caveats clear. One, I’m not a statistician or very good with numbers. Second, all of the numbers are just the numbers available on the AHL’s site. They don’t take into account double attendance, people who would attend an NHL game over an AHL game, or other variables. It other words, should we read much into these numbers? Probably not but they reveal at least one important thing.
Here’s the average (per game) attendance for the three teams with AHL rank and an NHL rank based on adding up the three averages and the total attendance for the three teams as well as the NHL ranks based on sum total.
The most striking thing out of all these numbers is the fact that Hartford’s attendance has been falling since 2005 even though they made the playoffs every year but last year. Springfield, the weakest of the three markets, hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2003 and their attendance probably reflects that fact. Bridgeport has been in the middle of the two teams, missing the playoffs in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
Is Hartford Going to get the NHL back?
Read what you will about the numbers, but I’ve been blunt in the past and I’ll continue that here. Hartford isn’t going to get an NHL franchise any time soon, there’s just too many issues. For one we’re talking about an overall market that has has lost close to 35,000 fans in 5 years and hasn’t gotten higher than 19th in league attendance. That’s not something the NHL would probably be willing to risk a franchise on. Even if the NHL was willing to do so Hartford probably slots behind Winnipeg and Quebec at the very least. Add that to the fact that the NHL probably won’t expand beyond more than 2 teams, meaning Hartford’s best shot at an NHL team is probably a relocated team. I doubt the NHL would be willing to foster more bad blood by moving a team, even one with low attendance, unless it absolutely has to (see the Coyotes last off season). Last but not least, if the NHL returns Hartford would need a new arena, something we’ve been promised since the Whalers left.
I enjoy that Howard Baldwin wants to bring NHL hockey back to Hartford, but until I see something different he’s fighting a battle he’s probably not going to win. The first step Baldwin and his management group needs to do is turn around attendance, bring it back above 200,000 and then move Hartford into a consistent top 10 AHL attendance team. A few Whalers Fan Fests and outdoor hockey games aren’t going to bring the NHL back to Hartford.