The AHL held their Board of Governors meeting in the first week of July, and they handed out some awards to teams based on their success in business operations. They also announced a new record for AHL attendance.
The Toronto Marlies won for overall ticket sales revenue growth in the Eastern Conference. The Lake Erie Monsters won in the Western Conference, and the Monsters (the Calder Cup winners) won all the other revenue awards in the west: season tickets sales, group sales and corporate promotional sales.
This is all very dry stuff and may bring back horrible memories of corporate events you've had to attend—don't you just wonder what the plaques look like—but there is something interesting to learn in that growth: winning sells tickets.
This is not news, but it is a truism that is not always accurate. The popularity of teams in a league like the AHL is driven by a lot of factors: competition from other sporting events, population, demographics, ticket prices, the quality of the "show" off the ice for fans.
Toronto won an award for excellence in the areas of digital media, community relations and fan experience as well, so the AHL at least thinks the Marlies are providing a fun fan experience, and a lot of fans did too.
The Marlies did not set an attendance record last season, but they were close.
For the entire league, you can use the full, interactive chart from the Hockey Database.
Toronto has not had that many fans in seats since the lockout, and the improvement over the previous year's very poor showing is marked. The 2014-2015 year was a season with a poor points percentage sandwiched between the good year in 2013-2014 and last year's record setting wins. In Toronto, at least, winning seems to be highly tied to ticket sales, with only a couple of years like the lockout year as exceptions.
For other teams, like the Western Conference winners of all those awards, the Lake Erie Monsters, that seems to be also true, but the tie is weaker. The Monsters had only made the playoffs once ever before their championship last year, and they have had generally good ticket sales. Some years they had good attendance even when they were really, really bad. But last year was their best ever.
The Chicago Wolves are an interesting case to refute the theory that only winning matters. Last year was their worst season on the ice in 15 years, and there was barely a blip in attendance. Some of the very old, very established AHL franchises have fanbases that fill the seats no matter what, and there is no discernible pattern of large or small city location to explain it.
The brand new San Diego Gulls team did extremely well in a so-called non-traditional market. They also won a lot of games. The San Jose Barracuda, also brand new, competed directly with the parent club for fans, and did okay while not winning quite so much.
For the Marlies, the challenge this season will be to keep winning and selling tickets with their team hollowed out and rebuilt around a new crop of young prospects of a calibre a little below William Nylander.
If they fail to keep up the winning or the attendance to the same amazing levels, it may not matter to the team very much. An AHL team can be seen as simply a necessary expense towards winning at the NHL level, and the Leafs might see attendance and revenue growth as a mitigation of that expense, not an end in itself.
Next time, I will look at the changes in how teams are spending their money.