Friday, 5 January 2018

How Does One Define Failure?

With Canada winning the gold medal at the 2018 World Junior Championship tonight over Sweden at Key Bank Center in Buffalo, another tournament has come to an end. Perhaps, in this case, mercifully. The action on the ice was fantastic with a few surprises, a couple of upsets, and the top-two teams in the tournament meeting for gold on the final day. Listening to the organizers talk glowingly about the success of this tournament yesterday, however, has me scratching my head as to how they define "success" when it comes to this tournament.

Including the gold medal final tonight, the attendance for this tournament - a 30-game tournament - was finalized at 211,210 for the two-week event. If you're doing quick math, yes, that's less than 10,000 fans per game. In fact, only the gold-medal game and the outdoor game at New Era Field cracked the 10,000 mark in attendance. To that end, organizers finally admitted that "oversaturation in the region, poor travel conditions and a sagging Canadian dollar" all contributed to poor ticket sales that "failed to meet expectations at the 2018 World Junior Championship."

It's this admission that makes me wonder if the IIHF and American organizers have any clue as to what they're doing when it comes to hosting this tournament. While all of those are factors which may have contributed to the poor attendance figures in Buffalo, it seems like rationalizing the poor attendance figures with excuses is easier than looking at the real reasons for the plummet in numbers.

As stated above, the 211,210 fans is the final total as per the IIHF, and it is the lowest attendance numbers since Grand Forks and Thief River Falls hosted the event in 2005. Here's the list of cities that have hosted the event since 2003 with their attendance numbers.
We need to hit the brakes here for a moment, though, because that 211,210 figure is a little off. None of these other places have had the opportunity to fill a football stadium with fans, so there's a bit of an anomaly in that Buffalo number. Let's take that game out of the total and recalculate. Instead of being the second-lowest, Buffalo's 2018 World Junior Championship is now far below Grand Forks/Thief River Falls, and is slightly ahead of Malmo at 166,618 fans for an average of 5745 fans per game.

The organizers rightly focused on the outdoor game at the press conference because it literally saved this year's edition of the tournament when you looked at the amount of vacant seats and sections at their main venue, Key Bank Center. Of all the games played at at that arena, only the gold-medal game featuring Canada and Sweden broke the 10,000-fan mark, and the average attendance at Key Bank Center was 7041 per game or 36.672% of the 19,200-seat capacity. If you remove the gold-medal game from the attendance totals at Key Bank Center, the attendance figures drop to 6541 fans per game or 34.067% of capacity.

The organizers blamed "poor travel conditions and a sagging Canadian dollar" as two reasons why the attendance was down from previous years, but even that rationale is flawed. Canada averaged 9346 fans per game at Key Bank Center compared to Team USA averaging 7361 fans per game. Even if you pull the gold-medal game from Canada's average, they still averaged 7706 fans - 345 fans per game more than Team USA on American soil!

Secondly, you can blame the weather all you like, but 44,592 people showed up to watch Canada and the US play outdoors in a blizzard, so that's another garbage excuse. The weather that everyone seems to think was so brutal was little more than an inconvenience when you consider that Canadians were still showing up to watch Canada play. You can blame Canada all you want when it comes to our support of the tournament, but it's pretty clear those reasons are completely false.

"Obviously, the ticket sales haven't been as robust as we would've hoped them to be," Mike Gilbert, the chair of the tournament organizing committee, told reporters. "But we don't judge the success and the failure of the tournament based on ticket sales."

Excuse me? If one isn't basing the success of the tournament on ticket sales, what does one base the success of the tournament on exactly? What other metrics would one use to determine success or failure outside of profitability of which tickets sales are a massive component?

Without fans, there isn't an atmosphere inside a cavernous arena like Key Bank Center. Without fans, you're paying ushers, security, janitorial, and concession people to be at an arena where it may not be sensible to have that many staff on-hand. Without fans, you're missing the whole point of the tournament, and it's pretty ridiculous that the organizers can't see that fact.

Maybe it is over-saturation of the area when it comes to hosting this tournament over and over again in the soutthern Ontario/Niagara region. Gare Joyce of writes,
When the 2015 tournament played out on the Montreal-Toronto axis with the medal round at what was then the Air Canada Centre. Canada won (thank you Connor McDavid) and the final against Russia was basically a sellout but there were a lot of ticket that went unsold. Two years later the tournament was back in the two cities with the final in Montreal. And you could have walked up to the window and bought good seats at the Bell Centre five minutes before the puck drop with the host nation taking on their American rivals, a game which should have filled the arena on xenophobia alone.
The IIHF had a chance to really look at the location of this tournament after they struggled to sell tickets in Canada - of all places - for the medal round of this game where Canada was playing for medals. Both Toronto and Montreal had extravagant ticket prices for those games, and there's some belief that had the ticket prices been lower there would have been sell-outs at every game. Even in saying that, the Buffalo organizers still had tickets in the three-figure price range for junior hockey. That's beyond crazy, and it doesn't bode well for Vancouver sell-outs when ticket packages range from $650 to $2,250. That's an expensive two weeks of hockey!

With Vancouver stating that they've already sold over 50% of the tickets for the 2019 event, there's a good chance that they'll outdraw Buffalo in terms of total attendance. Even if that figure is, say, 60% by the time summer rolls around, the problem is that there will still be some 7000 empty seats in the 18,630-seat Rogers Centre in Vancouver if 60% of the seats are filled. All those empty seats still won't provide the atmosphere where one can boast that it was a success, and people notice the empty seats before the 11,000 filled seats.

Perhaps this downward trend in attendance is more reflective of society overall. Earlier this year, there was an article written about how Broadway shows have experienced more and more empty seats despite playing at at major off-Broadway theaters. As Alexis Soloski wrote in The Guardian,
Broadway serves both a local market and a tourist one, theater snobs and theater newcomers. If you go to a Broadway show only once a year and your ticket likely costs upwards of $100, do you choose the intellectually engaging drama or the show with the lights and back handsprings and sequins? Are you going to the theater to think and learn and feel or to escape into an entertainment? That said, the choice isn't always so stark as one between, say, Sweat and Hello, Dolly!, as a couple of musicals attempt to do their own heavy lifting, like Dear Evan Hansen or Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Straight plays can't offer comparable razzle-dazzle, which means they're a harder sell to a tourist crowd, unless they have major stars involved.
Indeed, there was very little "star power" at this year's tournament with the likes of McDavid, Matthews, and Laine already playing big roles on NHL teams. One could say that the price point that the Buffalo tournament was charging didn't justify the lack of star power on the rosters, so fans were picking and choosing which games to watch based on which teams were playing rather than who was playing. Just as Miss Soloski stated above regarding Broadway fans choosing how to spend their $100, the Russia-Sweden preliminary game drew just 6121 fans despite both teams having established stars such as Klim Kostin and Rasmus Dahlin whereas the game between Finland and Slovakia outdrew the Russia-Sweden affair by 108 fans.

In the end, though, the lack of ticket sales at an arena as big as Key Bank Center was very noticeable on television, and I'm sure it would have been even more apparent to the players on the ice. The fact that this tournament played to just 41.667% capacity in all venues over this two-week tournament is pretty brutal. To call this tournament a success just isn't true by any measure, and the organizers need to check their egos at the door before spewing that kind of garbage as fact.

Congratulations to Canada on capturing their 17th gold medal at the World Junior Championship. Congratulations to Sweden on their efforts as they earned the silver medal, and congratulations to Team USA on capturing the bronze medal. There were inspiring and amazing moments in this tournament that were seen by millions. It's just too bad that hardly any of these moments were seen in-person.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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