Chances are you’ve heard a lot about the Ottawa Senators’ inability to sell out playoff games over the last few days, especially if you’re a hockey fan living in Ontario. On one hand you have folks living in Ottawa going on the defensive about it, and those down in the Golden Horseshoe using it as a rallying point to troll their intraprovincial rivals. Either way, this situation is getting a lot of air time (or Twitter focus, I guess), and as a person residing in the the nation’s capital, I’ve given it my fair share of thought.
The official game sheet said 16,744 fans were in the 19,153-seat arena…The Senators, playing in the second round for the first time in four years, sold out only one of three home games in the first round against Boston. The club struggled with attendance during the regular season too — tied with Columbus for 24th overall at 87.4 per cent capacity.
That’s from the National Post this morning, after the opening game of Ottawa’s second round series with the Rangers.
As a Leafs supporter, I enjoy ripping the Sens as much as anyone, and will do so at any opportunity, this one included. But joking and quipping aside, Ottawa’s a pretty sweet deal for Toronto fans in the area – you get to see the Leafs 2-3 times a season for a fraction of the price you’d pay to watch them in their home city, or even neighboring Montreal. I saw Auston Matthews’ four-goal debut from Row B for 125-dollars, for example.
From a purely selfish perspective, I don’t really want to see the Senators fall into a downward spiral, and beyond that, I think cheering for a franchise to be ripped away from their base is not a good look. [I’ll do my share of mocking, but underneath it all I’ve got your back, Ottawa. For now anyway.]
So I have some opinions on why I think this team is having trouble putting asses in the seats, and my first one is that there is no single reason. There are a few things going on here.
Distance isn’t a problem until it is
First off, it’s well-documented that the Sens are a team (maybe the only one) that has their arena far outside their actual home city. Here’s how you would travel from the downtown core (Byward Market, Elgin, Parliament, etc) to the arena in Kanata.
That’s a rough commute, especially with that main stretch of the TransCanada highway getting jammed up from 4-7pm on game days. But there are a few things that make this “bad location” argument really flimsy. First off, this whole situation isn’t new. The arena has been in that location for two decades. It is a bad location, especially for someone like me who lives downtown, but it isn’t like fans in the area all of a sudden woke up and realized that drive sucks. It’s always sucked. And secondly, as much as this distance seems daunting in heavy traffic, you can hop on a bus downtown and get to the arena in 20 minutes via the transit routes for like $4.00. Someone traveling into Toronto from Ajax has it worse.
And again, it’s been this way forever, so why the stark change in turnout?
Well, what has changed is that the Sens have been confirmed to be have a new home in the next 3-5 years, in the actual city (what a concept), and personally I think that’s cutting into their existing base.
What you don’t see on that map are the communities west and south of Kanata, like Arnprior, Mississippi Mills, Carleton Place, Smith Falls, and so on. They’re small towns but they do add up. And of course there’s Kanata itself, which along with neighboring Stittsville, makes up another 100k people or so.
But you’re going to say “Of course, every city is surrounded by municipalities like this”, and that’s correct. My point is that while there’s a potential base the Sens have always alienated in the downtown and eastern areas of the city, there’s a portion of their existing base they never would have gotten if not for their current location. And I believe what’s happening now is that they’re at an ugly crossroads.
A fan in Kanata or Almonte is being told their team is heading downtown, where now the commute is going to be a problem for them. It’s anecdotal, but I work in Kanata and have had plenty of co-workers tell me just that: They won’t attend as many games when the team moves. And I think they’re already feeling that loyalty slip. Will they still support the team? Sure. But why continue to help out an owner who’s more-or-less taking it away? I wouldn’t.
Too much playoffs?
Say what you will about the Senators, but they’ve only missed the playoffs four times since 1996, and in the middle part of that stretch they were a true contender, inarguably the Cup favourite in 2006 until Dominik Hasek got hurt. In recent years they’ve been a squeak-in kind of team, never really much of a threat, and maybe that’s why these playoff games don’t really seem so precious to some. I’m not even sure if I believe this is a factor, but it could be. We’ve always been fed the line that “winning cures all” when it comes to southern U.S. markets being in trouble, but there might be something to be said about being in a weird purgatory of mediocre competitiveness.
The Phoenix system (not the Coyotes)
I don’t want to get into the ins-and-outs of this, but for the uninitiated, here’s a quick primer: Our federal government payroll system is a total wreck. People aren’t getting paid for weeks, even months on end, others are getting paid too much, everyone’s taxes are all messed up. It’s a bad scene.
I had a hard time pinning down how many people in the region are affected by this debacle, but apparently around 145,000 federal employees work in Ottawa (a metro region of only 1.2-million). Let’s just say thousands of people are in the shit.
A pair of good tickets to see a playoff game is upwards of 600-dollars, which isn’t even expensive by league standards (and especially in Canada), but you can see how it might be a problem for someone who hasn’t been paid since 2016. Is this a factor that’s being played up too much? Perhaps. But to dismiss it entirely is absurd.
Obviously I don’t have a definitive answer for why the Senators have 3000 empty seats in their building when they’re one of eight remaining teams for the Stanley Cup. If I did, I’d probably work for the team. But some of the reasons tossed around I have a hard time getting behind.
The supposed “boring” style of play argument regarding Guy Boucher’s system seems weak. Even with the team’s tough time scoring goals throughout the season, they do have a true superstar in Karlsson and find themselves on the right end of a lot of one-goal games. I watch plenty of hockey and this is not the worst product in the NHL by any means. And off the ice, this group isn’t particularly fun or full of personality, but it’s far from unlikeable.
No, I think this is a mix of a few reasons, like the ones I’ve talked about above. The difficulty is in trying to divvy those up into which are contributing most to least. In my eyes, the eventual move to a new location that’s hanging over the club seems to be the most prominent one, but like Ian Mendes wrote in his column this morning “If you talk to 10 different Senators fans, they will give you 10 different reasons why they don’t attend games on a consistent basis.” Words that are scary to read if you’re one of the people that does. Personally, I believe the quicker the move to downtown happens, the better, and this franchise can re-calibrate to see where their base really stands.