In case many in Central Ohio aren’t aware, the Columbus Blue Jackets, with only 16 games left in the 2013-14 regular season, are in the Stanley Cup playoffs chase. In fact, were the playoffs to start, today, the Blue Jackets could conceivably not only qualify for the playoffs, they would – giving consideration to having played 2 less games than the New York Rangers, who hold a 2-point lead on Columbus – possibly nab the 2nd overall position in the Metropolitan Division.
However, in reviewing the National Hockey League (NHL) attendance figures, you would be led to believe that the Blue Jackets have continued their moribund ways of so many of their 13 years in the NHL. They currently rank 29th in overall and average attendance per home date out of the 30 NHL teams.
Considering that the Blue Jackets narrowly, via losing the tie-breaker of ROWs – Regulation and Overtime Wins – missed last season’s playoffs and have resurrected their fortunes since the arrival of Team President of Hockey Operations (POHO) John Davidson and General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen, one would think that fans would flock into the state-of-the-art venue that is Nationwide Arena, in droves. However, that is not the case, which leads to the baffling question:
Why do the Blue Jackets continue to struggle with attendance?
Regarding their on-ice product, the Blue Jackets are a gritty, tight-checking team, one considered tough to play against for opponents, particularly in Nationwide Arena. Save for their sole post-season appearance in the 2008-09 season, in which then head coach Ken Hitchcock should have garnered the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s top head coach, the Blue Jackets’ locker room truly embodies an ‘all in’ mentality and overall team unity. And while they’ve struggled against the NHL’s elite squads – most notably, they’ve yet to defeat, this season, the likes of the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues – they have done very well against the rest of the NHL’s teams, including those who sit near or at the top of their respective division and conference standings.
As to their off-ice product: game operations, public relations, community service, ticket promotions, reasonable ticket prices (note: the Blue Jackets average ticket prices rank 27th out of the 30 NHL teams) and likeability quotient of their current squad, also known in the media as its ‘Q Factor’, the Blue Jackets have literally bent over backwards in their attempt to reach out to its fans who felt disenfranchised over their many struggles.
Thus, it leads to deeper issues, something logic seems to defy. As a former season ticket holder and someone who has ardently followed this team since its inception during the 2000-01 regular season, I offer the reasons as to their continued struggles at the gate.
Ohio State Athletics – there it is, the 500 lb. gorilla and elephant in the room. Whether fair or not, this has, and will always be – and trust me, the Ohio State University (OSU) likes it, that way – an OSU town. Their legacy of college football and basketball greatness (by the way, in spite of their continued on-court success, OSU basketball does struggle when compared to its football following) has dwarfed any attention that could be given to the Blue Jackets. This was evident during 2010-11 season, when the Blue Jackets continued to struggle even while storming out of the gates with a 14-6-0 record. It’s particularly an issue in the fall when OSU football is king of all of Central Ohio and that even a 20-0-0 start would barely ‘move the needle’ towards stellar fall attendance.
Promises of the Past – this could also be classified as ‘the sins of the past’ – specifically, where prior regimes, where promises were made that weren’t even close to being met. MacLean, for example, during the Detroit Red Wings reign as the premier team in the NHL, once uttered this, “I wouldn’t trade this team for any team in the NHL and that includes Detroit.” At the time, I wish I could have responded as I would have replied, “Uh Doug, can I take that trade, pronto?” MacLean promised, year in and year out, that it was going to be “playoffs, baby”, that the Blue Jackets were primed to take the next step towards becoming the NHL’s elite.
While the succeeding regime of GM Scott Howson didn’t make such bold promises, his failure to accept any blame in their woes and any accountability infuriated the fan-base, to the point of its lowest season ticket figures – barely over 7,000 seats – in its history. When often asked how his team could improve, rather than accept any blame, Howson, at every turn, said the following, “It’s on the players, the players decide (the success of this team).” To which I would rejoin, had I been given that platform, “Uh Scott, who assembled the players (that decide the success of this team)?” In short, if you’re unwilling to accept any responsibility for your failures, how can you expect your players to be held accountable?
Fickle Town – OSU’s legendary football coach, Wayne Woodrow (Woody) Hayes, the season after winning his 5th and last national title, when asked about the fans in Central Ohio, said, “They’re, uh, fickle.” Columbus and its metropolitan area is a true ‘show me’ city, one who expects to compete and to win national college football titles. So, giving consideration to the giant shadow cast by OSU football, particularly in the fall, the pitfalls of having a professional sports franchise is the same city where its college sports teams are king, the ‘show me’ mindset is an even larger hurdle to overcome. In fact, after its initial success of consecutive sellouts during the inaugural campaigns, it was only during their lone playoff appearance in 2008-09, and that was late in the season when it appeared that they were destined for doing what was long thought to be a ‘pipe dream’ that the fans came out and delivered, at the time, its highest single-game attendance figures.
The ‘If, Then’ Quandary – there is one particular oddity that has haunted the Blue Jackets, historically, in the history of their franchise and that is a nearly linear proclivity for losing and losing, badly, when a sellout or large crowd is in attendance. While not scientific, it’s almost a relative certainty that if there is a sellout crowd that turns out for a game – Opening Night, a Friday or Saturday game against a premier opponent, particularly one like the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins who bring a throng of followers into Nationwide Arena – the Blue Jackets often lose the game. With their current gritty, tough-minded squad, this is not to suggest a level of apathy as was the case during previous regimes; however, the fact remains that the team does struggle when Nationwide Arena is filled to the rafters which currently could be caused by trying too hard to please the crowd. Either way, starting to win games in front of large crowds on a consistent basis could go a long way towards bringing back the disenfranchised fans and those casual, on the fence, fans.
However, in spite of all of this, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman believes what so many of us analysts and observers believe, that this Central Ohio market is a ‘sleeping giant’, that when they do build the franchise the way that Davidson and Kekalainen have been doing, that it will have sustainable success and will be primed to not only qualify for, but to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
In the meantime, and sadly, there is only one solution to their maddening attendance struggles: to win and to win, often. The good news is that this organization is headed in the right direction, now it’s up to the fans to recognize that and support the team the way it deserves to be supported.