Every year the International Ice Hockey Federation releases the average attendance figures for the European leagues’ regular seasons. This year the list shows that the Leafs’ European prospects are playing in some of the most popular leagues and teams there are.
Popularity isn’t the only thing that drives attendance: rink size does too, and that’s one of the factors in who tops the list. Attendance, and the attendant ticket sales, also don’t necessarily equal financial success. Last year, the Swiss team ZSC Lions posted one of their best years ever in ticket sales and still lost money. Both of those things can be traced to Auston Matthews, who put fans in the seats but also cost money, since the Swiss NLA league does not have a cap on rookie salaries like the NHL does.
The NLA does have good-sized arenas, some of them NHL-sized, and good attendance, so they once again have the highest average attendance at 6,882 per game in Europe. That is a decline from last year of approximately two percent from 7,026.
Some teams in the NLA draw a lot more than the average, and the European leader is the Swiss team SC Bern, home this year to Mark Arcobello and the regular season league leader in points. They drew on average 16,399 fans per game which is 96 percent of the arena capacity. Winning sells tickets.
The second place team is the KHL club, Dinamo Minsk, a playoff team, but only a good one not a great one. They averaged 13,230 attendance, but that’s only 88 percent capacity.
The KHL itself averages only 6,121 per game and is third in Europe, so there is, like in the NLA, huge disparity between teams. Ak Bars Kazan, a very popular team in the east of Russia who are 28th on list with 6,471 on average, only have an arena capacity of 10,000, so they can never get to Dinamo Minsk numbers. The Gagarin Cup Champions and the best team in the east, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, play in an arena with a capacity of only 7,500 and are 22nd on the list on the strength of near sell-out crowds.
What might be surprising to many in North America is that the second ranked league in all of Europe is the German league, the DEL. They are not, in terms of quality of hockey, in the same class as the KHL or even the NLA, but they fill their arenas. The third fourth and fifth ranked teams are all in the DEL.
The Swedish league, the SHL, is fourth on the list with 5,707, and for years they led this ranking, but have given way to the growth in Switzerland, the KHL as well as just the decline in their own attendance. This year’s number is almost two and a half percent lower than last year’s. Swedish games rarely sell out, and the decline in fans going to games is one of the reasons Swedish hockey raised concerns with the NHL about where prospects are playing.
Toronto has had two prospects lately in Sweden on Frölunda Gothenburg, and they are the highest ranked Swedish team with 9,029 fans on average, good for the tenth highest in all of Europe. Carl Grundström and the rest of the team this year were well supported as the defending champions, however, that is only 75 percent capacity (the team plays in two different home rinks and the report does not detail how that number was calculated).
Back in Russia, Yegor Korshkov plays on one of the most well attended KHL arenas in Yaroslavl. Lokomotiv draws 8,381 on average, which is 12th on the list and 93 percent capacity. The fans are passionate about their phoenix of a team that has risen to playoff status from the despair of one of the greatest tragedies in hockey. That is the sixth highest ranked KHL team, and the third highest team in Russia.
The IIHF says that the top four European leagues rank between the top North American ones:
These four European leagues rank behind the NHL (currently 17,496) and before the American Hockey League (currently 5,270) in terms of attendance.
Last year’s list gave some figures for other North American hockey leagues.
The third-most watched hockey league in North America is the major junior league WHL with an average of 4,312 fans while another team from the Canadian junior leagues, the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, has the highest average in North America outside of the NHL with 13,741 fans.
The NCAA Men’s Division I, by far the most-followed college league, came in sixth place in North America with 3,432 fans led by the University of North Dakota – host of the upcoming 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Grand Forks – with 11,774 spectators per game.
All of these numbers are reported by teams in a process the IIHF doesn’t make public in this document, and they come with this caveat. The reported figures for the new KHL team in China, Kunlun Red Star seem hard to believe:
Kunlun Red Star, the new Chinese team that entered the KHL in summer, averaged 2,952 fans in its first regular season and is now the most-watched club team in Asia. 5,137 fans in average came to the games at the Olympic venue in Beijing, 1,280 spectators to the games held in Shanghai. Second in Asia were the Nikko Ice Bucks from Japan who averaged 1,449 fans in the nine-team Asia League.
The bulk of Kunlun’s early season was played in Shanghai, and some media reports and my personal experience watching a few games do not line up with attendance that large. The arena was essentially empty in Shanghai any time I saw the team play. The attendance in Beijing was notably greater.
For second tier league, Sweden’s Hockey Allsvenskan leads the group with 2,637 on average. That league is home to Pierre Engvall and Jesper Lindgren, and like most leagues, popularity depends on where a team is, both in the standings and geographically.
Lower tier leagues in Russia and other countries struggle to hit 2,000 tickets sold and in some countries the teams are totally subsidized by parent clubs with top-tier teams as part of the cost of doing business, much like the NHL teams do with AHL affiliates.
The Leafs have their prospects on good teams that are maintaining interest of their local fans mostly by being good. But it’s still Arcobello who has the most people cheering for him every night.
(Arena capacity figures are from Google, and are rounded figures.)