Will the NHL lockout affect the NLL?

When it became clear that an NHL lockout in 2012-2013 was inevitable, many NLL fans, writers, players, and executives seemed to believe that while this is a big drag for hockey fans (which many lacrosse fans are), it could be a good thing for the NLL. The obvious logic is that without hockey to watch, hockey fans may look for other places to spend their sports event dollars. What better place to spend it than on a league that plays in many of the same arenas, with a similar sport, featuring some of the best athletes in the world, and with tickets that cost a fraction of NHL tickets? The NLL can’t lose! Can it?

Of course, this has happened before. The NHL missed the entire 2004-2005 season due to a lockout, and so the entire 2005 NLL season was played while there were no NHL games being played. How did the NLL do attendance-wise that year? Let’s have a look.

The overall average attendance for the NLL in 2005 was 10237, which was up 3.6% from 9885 in 2004. Looks promising so far. But 2004’s attendance was up 14.3% from 8649 in 2003, so attendance was already increasing. In 2006 the attendance was 10703, which was up 4.6% over 2005. Overall attendance did increase in 2005, but less than it had in 2004, and less than it would in 2006.

Here is a graph showing the average home attendance for each team as well as for the entire league (the black line in the middle).

Attendance 03-08

Do you see any peaks in 2005? Toronto has a little one, but they won the Championship with a powerhouse team. 2005 was the last year of the Rock’s early-2000’s dynasty so the increase makes sense. Buffalo was right in the middle of their impressive resurrection from only 7002 in 2003 to the mid-15000’s only 4 years later. Arizona was up 13.9%, but that’s all of 800 people. Other teams showed no significant increase, if any. Calgary was up 2.1%, but grew 15.4% the next year. Anaheim, San Jose and Toronto were up less than 2%, and Rochester less than 1%. Colorado was down 3% and Philly was down almost 14%.

The obvious but unfortunate conclusion is that the 2004-2005 NHL lockout had little to no impact on NLL attendance.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any TV numbers, so I can’t look at whether more people watched the NLL on TV in 2005. If the NLL approached TSN or Sportsnet or the CBC (Anyone for “Lacrosse Night in Canada”? Could it happen?) with the opportunity to televise NLL games, that could be a ton of exposure for the league. I don’t pretend to have the faintest idea on how the finances of such a deal would work; it could be that the NLL would have to pay for that privilege rather than receive money from the networks. I know the Rock paid to have some of their games televised over the last couple of seasons.

Could the NLL benefit from the NHL lockout? Attendance-wise, it doesn’t seem likely without the league doing a fair bit of work (and possibly spending a fair bit of money) to advertise the hell out of the league and bring new people in. After that, it’s up to the league to continue that push to make sure all those first-timer’s come back once hockey starts again.


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