Attendance has long been a topic of conversation within the NLL community. Some of the news is good, like Colorado, Buffalo, Calgary, and this season, Saskatchewan. Some of it is bad, like Georgia, New England, and any team called Stealth. Rochester is Rochester: not super high numbers but consistent.
And then there’s the Rock.
The Rock were once the darling of the NLL: consistently high attendance numbers and always a great team. They went to five straight Championship games, winning four of them. They went 42-9 at home in the regular season from 1999-2005, and 9-2 in the playoffs. They had the highest attendance in the league from 2001-2003 and again in 2005.
I remember wondering (in about the 2004-2005 time frame) what might happen when the Rock had some down seasons. We’d seen the huge crowds during the 11-5 and 10-6 seasons, but what would we see during a 6-10 season? Or after a couple of them? Well, now we know.
Check out the following chart of average Rock regular season home game attendance per season:
Six seasons after their debut, the Rock had grown their attendance from 11,075 to 17,123 in 2005. But then it only took five seasons for it to drop to 10,066. What happened? The honeymoon ended. After all the Championship seasons and home victories, they finished 8-8 in 2006, Terry Sanderson was fired, and fan favourite Colin Doyle was traded. Then they had three straight sub-.500 seasons, missing the playoffs in two of them. They went four full seasons between home playoff games. Jim Veltman, the only captain in team history to that point, also retired in that span. Attendance dropped like a rock (pun most certainly intended) and recovery since 2010 has been minimal.
The most misleading thing about this graph is that the biggest single-season decrease came in 2010, when average attendance dropped 3,855. 2010 was also the first year that Jamie Dawick owned the team, making making it look like Dawick’s ownership caused the drop. Could it be that the fans thought the previous ownership group (which included such names as Don Cherry, Tie Domi, and Brad Watters) was giving up on the team, and so they should too? That seems unlikely, so Dawick’s presence is almost certainly not the cause. Indeed, the first thing he did as owner was to get Terry Sanderson back, the re-acquisition of Colin Doyle followed, and the team made the Championship game in 2010, losing to the Stealth.
That playoff success did bump attendance a little, about 900 per game. Winning the Championship in 2011 also gave it a bump but a small one, not even 200. It’s dropped every season since. This year (as of March 19), they’re right smack in the middle in 5th place at 9,039 per game, just below the league average of 9,219. The 0-6 start did not help, nor did the Thursday night game in January or the two home games in the same weekend in mid-March.
You might think that in a city that hosts the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs, who sold out every game at Maple Leaf Gardens from 1946 to 1999 and then every game at the Air Canada Centre from then until 2015, wouldn’t have attendance problems with a team that’s actually good. But it seems that not only is Toronto a Leafs-first city (we always knew that), but they’re awfully quick to dive off the bandwagon once a team stops winning. We also saw that in the mid 1990’s – after the Blue Jays won their back-to-back Championships, the baseball strike plus a mediocre team dropped average attendance at SkyDome from over 50,000 in 1993 to 31,600 only four years later.
So Rock fans, here’s a plea. Get your butt out to the ACC, and bring friends. This is a gate-driven league, meaning the way the league and teams make money is primarily ticket sales. The NFL has such lucrative TV deals that they could play to empty stadiums every week and still make a fortune. That’s not the case with NLL teams, some of whom (like Toronto) actually pay to get their games televised in order to bring in new fans. Jamie Dawick pays big money to get Rock games on TV and to rent the ACC, and I don’t know for sure but I suspect he’s losing money on every one. That can’t continue forever so make sure you support the team by getting to as many games as you can. And buying merch doesn’t hurt either.
Note: Before you accuse me of being a Rock shill, I receive no compensation of any kind (money, tickets, swag) from the Rock or the league. I just want the team to succeed.