KHL Attendance Musings: Autumn Edition
We are at about the quarter-pole of the 2015-16 KHL season (What? Already? Yes, already.), and that is as convenient a point as any to take our first look at the league’s attendance numbers. So read on, as we discover — among other things — which is the only KHL club with perfect attendance this year, who is close behind them, and which clubs are so far from that mark that they can but dream of it at this point!
First of all, the top three in attendance so far this season are: SKA St. Petersburg (11808 fans/gm.), Dinamo Minsk (11004), and Jokerit Helsinki (9537). Those teams were also the best-attended trio in 2014-15, although SKA have now passed Dinamo Minsk for top spot. The Lonely Hearts Brigade at the bottom of the attendance rankings comprises: Severstal Cherepovets (3386), Vityaz Moscow Oblast (2582), and Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk (2579) — note that Vityaz and Ugra are basically tied. That represents three of the bottom four teams in attendance last season, with Metallurg Novokuznetsk having moved on up the table. So no real surprises among either the best or the worst in the league.
However, the raw attendance numbers do not really tell us much, primarily because KHL arenas vary widely in size. The biggest is the Minsk-Arena, home of Dinamo, which holds 15,086. That’s almost four times the capacity of the 4070-seat Kazakhstan Sports Palace, wherein Barys Astana ply their trade (Barys will be moving, probably within the month, to their new 12,000-seat Barys Arena). And the league’s ice palaces are relatively evenly distributed between those two extremes. Thus, to get a clearer picture of who the KHL’s well-supported teams are, we need to consider things from the point of view of percent of capacity.
Some notes before we do that: all capacity and attendance figures are from khl.ru. KHL game attendances are sometimes reported exactly and sometimes rounded off to the nearest hundred, so there is likely a bit of wiggle-room in these figures. With that in mind, however, all arithmetic errors are mine. The number in brackets after each team name is the number of home games so far this season. And finally, I have colour-coded the teams by conference; light blue is East, light green is West. So here is the chart showing the KHL’s 28 clubs sorted by percent of arena filled, up to date through games on September 30th:
Well done, Sibir Novosibirsk, who have yet to see an empty seat in eight home games this season! In fact, well done the East Conference, which has six of its fourteen clubs over 90%, compared to three from the West. Torpedo’s good performance in this chart is also welcome, particularly after they lost some key players (Jarko Immonen, for example) over the summer. This could reasonably have been expected to be a down year for them on the ice and in the stands, but they are doing just fine in both areas. Amur we will discuss anon.
We should also tip the hat to SKA St. Petersburg; the defending champions have one of the biggest arenas in the league, and they not only nearly fill it, but have done so for some time.
Note the revived Spartak Moscow, who have both the best overall attendance and the highest percentage of capacity of any of the capital-area teams. However, we should also remember that they have been warned by the league for exaggerating their attendance, so things may not be quite that rosy. In any case, all four Moscow teams (including Vityaz in the hinterland) are below the mid-point of the table, and that is not a new problem at all. In fact, it dates back to about the time of glasnost, when entertainment options in the city suddenly became much more diverse.
At the bottom end of the table, we once again find Vityaz and Ugra. Low attendance in those two buildings is nothing new, but it is a bit alarming to note that they are both under 50% capacity. It is even moreso when we consider that both teams are having decent seasons. Vityaz are in the thick of the hunt for their first ever playoff spot, while Ugra are actually, remarkably, atop the Kharlamov Division and currently seeded second in the East Conference. Now, Ugra just made their run up the standings in the last couple of weeks, after starting the season among the favourites to finish dead last in the KHL, so we could well see an attendance bump from them as the season rolls along. However, things are actually worse even than they appear for poor Vityaz, as we shall discover in a moment…
On that note, we now turn to how teams are doing relative to last year. The average overall attendance at KHL matches in 2015-16 is 5981 through 205 games played, which is about 450 below the average for the entire 2014-15 season. Where is the drop-off coming from? Another chart, showing each team’s change over last season, should provide some clues:
Let us begin with the bad news; four teams have seen their attendance drop by over 1000 per game, and Salavat Yulaev are close enough to making it five. Dinamo Minsk’s problem may well be tied to the early season crisis of the foreign player rules, which has hurt hockey relations between Belarus and Russia. The team has also suffered in the standings compared to 2014-15’s excellent work. If Dinamo can get things straightened out a bit, that league-worst-by-far drop of more than 3000 should improve somewhat. HK Sochi also enjoyed a successful season last year, and had novelty value to boot; while once again scrapping for a playoff spot, they are no longer quite as new and exciting. As for Slovan and Jokerit, I am not sure where to attribute the big drop, although one is tempted to cast a suspicious eye at the current geopolitical situation to some extent. One mitigating item: all four of the “big drop” teams are still above the league average for attendance, although it is very close in Sochi’s case and mainly a result of their large home buildings.
As for Salavat Yulaev, this is the second straight season with a big attendance drop. Last year, financial problems were the reason (the team’s sponsor got embroiled in an anti-corruption court case). Those, happily, are behind us, so 2015-16’s drop probably has everything to do with Salavat Yulaev’s dreadful start to the season. There have been some signs that things are turning around; we wait to see if on-ice improvement is matched in those attendance figures.
Dynamo Moscow have had a bit of an attendance bump due to their move into the brand-new VTB Arena, but one could hope for more given that the change increased their capacity by 3600. 300 more fans per game seems a small payoff for that. However, thanks to the new building’s size, the team did break its post-1956 attendance mark when SKA paid a visit earlier this season and 10229 fans came out to watch. More of that will be welcome, and with Dynamo applying some pressure to the top of the West Conference standings, it may yet happen.
And… Vityaz. I hate to pick on them, I really do, but that is a ghastly drop for a team whose numbers are poor to begin with. In fact, at this time last year, Vityaz were drawing nearly 1500 more fans per game than they are now. After a bright start last season, Vityaz’s playoff hopes faded away in the winter months and their support began to dwindle; they have commenced well again this year, but the fans may be thinking: “once bitten, etc.”
On the bright side, Amur Khabarovsk’s off-season reorganization and the arrival of local hero Alexander Mogilny in a front-office role are paying dividends at the box office (some welcome financial stability has not hurt either). Amur’s fans are famously loyal, but in 2014-15 money troubles and a second successive last-place finish saw them finally begin to stay away from the Platinum Arena. For now, at least, all seems to be forgiven.
And the East Conference, again, shows very well on that chart, with vostokian teams occupying the top five spots and well ahead of sixth. Perhaps the most impressive improvement comes from Metallurg Novoknetsk; the other four are enjoying good seasons on the ice (relatively so, in Amur’s case), but “Kuznya” are 4-12, 13th out of 14 in the conference, and yet the fans are still coming out. However, we should be aware that Metallurg started last season well in the stands and on the ice, before stumbling badly in both categories as the season went on (they were very much like Vityaz in that regard), so we will see how things turn out.
Overall, the league-wide drop in average attendance must be seen as a disappointment. However, there are reasons to stop short of calling it a crisis. For one thing, we are dealing with a very small early-season sample size, and some of the league’s big draws have not yet played much at home. Dinamo Minsk may be well off last season’s pace, but they still have the KHL’s second-biggest attendance this season, and have 25 home games yet to play (and league attendance leaders SKA have 24). Bottom-of-the-rankings Vityaz, meanwhile, have only 19 home dates left. So there may be some corrective effect in the next little while.
Furthermore, two teams are expecting to move into new, larger, arenas before the 2015-16 season is over. Barys Astana we have already mentioned above, and since the Kazakh team is already nearly filling its current building, we can hope for and expect a bump when they change addresses later in October. Spartak Moscow, too, are planning to move to the Megasport Arena (capacity 13000 plus) in December. Now, Dynamo Moscow’s recent experience warns us not to expect too much there, but it should help somewhat.
Finally, there is the 2014-15 campaign, when the KHL saw an increase of attendance over the course of the season. At this time in 2014-15, the league was drawing about 6250 fans per game, and the average stayed that way through Christmas. In the new year, however, as the playoff races heated up, the number of fans attending also rose, to its final average of 6422 per match. It will be interesting to see if we get a similar phenomenon this time.
In any case, we will check back in with the attendance numbers at about the halfway mark of the season, and see what is happening. In meantime, if you have any comments, complaints, or questions on the matter, leave ’em in the comments! We will have news notes tomorrow as usual.