Analysis | Empty seats are a big problem in the NHL. For the Leafs, not so much

The Maple Leafs are not selling the Scotiabank Arena.

Hope for?

That’s right. The team with the long-standing waiting list for season tickets has played with at least a few empty seats in every game but one so far this season. They’ve had more unsold books than the rest of their arena seasons combined.

Is it cause for concern? Did a slow start turn off the fans? Did the postseason disappointment finally convince at least some fans to stay away? Are the ticket prices just too high?

Or is it COVID-19? Are people just not willing to sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers who sometimes don’t wear masks because they are eating or drinking?

“They have been sold through a drought of wins and no returns for how many years are we talking about? Our life? says Brian Cooper, president of marketing for MKTG and former vice president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the lack of enthusiasm or the erosion of the fan base, or the lack of interest in hockey.

“I think it has a lot to do with what we’ve been through for two years with COVID, the reluctance of some people to even be in a big gathering, be it a wedding or a gathering of 19,000 people who are not going to attend. put that mask on. “

Whatever the reason, the view of empty seats at Leafs games – some unsold, some paid but vacant – is jarring. Thursday night’s overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, was officially sold, the second of the season, but many seats were unoccupied.

The Leafs have been aggressively marketing tickets, with the secondary market taking a beating and even out-of-the-arena resellers offering to sell below cost.

Tom McDonald, MLSE’s senior vice president of ticketing, acknowledges that “a few hundred” seasonal subscribers “parked” their tickets this year due to COVID-19 concerns. They will stay away this season, but plan to return.

Despite empty seats, Leafs' total attendance has been 98.3 percent of capacity so far this season.

That is in addition to the thousands of tickets the Leafs make available to the general public at each game. And while they actually have a long enough waiting list to sell every ticket, for the past 20 years they have chosen not to sell all seats to subscribers. It’s those seats that haven’t sold, McDonald says.

“If you recall, it was only 4:30 on the Friday before Thanksgiving long weekend that we got approval at 100 percent capacity,” McDonald said.

“We had our first home game the following Wednesday. So we go on sale with tickets only on Tuesday, the day before our first home game … normally we would go on sale six, maybe eight weeks before when we would have our first game. So that’s absolutely impacting ticket sales and our business today. “

McDonald says empty seats at Scotiabank Arena will be a thing of the past in December.

“We have not seen (COVID) wavering from our members and fans,” McDonald said. “The vast majority of our members have felt comfortable and are comfortable coming to the venue.”

Maple Leaf Gardens was always packed and was known as the “Carlton St. Cashbox” under skinflint owner Harold Ballard. The crowd continued to the largest Air Canada Center, now Scotiabank Arena, in 1999, with only a handful of games falling short of full capacity.

At one point, 18,819 had been deemed sold. These days, McDonald’s says it’s 18,900 for a Leafs game.

For the Raptors, it’s 19,800. They announced sold-out tickets for each of their first three home dates, although many seats were left empty.

In other parts of the NHL, empty seats are a much bigger problem than in Toronto. So far, only five NHL teams are at or above capacity, with another 10 over 90 percent. In the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season, there were 11 teams at or above capacity, plus 16 at more than 90 percent.

For a league that relies on gate revenue more than others, even with more lucrative American TV deals this season, that has to be a concern.

“Without a doubt,” Cooper said. “If you look at college football: completely exhausted, completely unmasked, especially Florida. And that was two months ago in a situation where there was still a high rate of people contracting the disease and dying from the disease.

In their current form, the Leafs rank seventh in the NHL’s attendance as a percentage of capacity (98.3 percent); they are usually above 100 percent. Teams may be over capacity because the number of private boxes varies from game to game.

McDonald is confident that filling the remaining seats will not be a problem for the winter.

“We are seeing a lot of positivity and support from our fans,” he said.

By the numbers

The smallest crowds of the Maple Leafs since they moved to the Air Canada Center / Scotiabank Arena:

18,089 October 18 vs. Rangers

18,211 October 16 against Senators

18,366 March 23, 2015 vs. Wild

18,493 October 13 against Canadiens

18,603 October 22 against sharks

18,689 November 2 against the Knights

18,727 October 31, 2002 vs. Thrashers

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