World Junior 2015: Empty seats in Montreal reflection that Hockey Canada, IIHF overshot their target
MONTREAL — Far be it to suggest big-market NHL prices for junior hockey isn't working out too perfectly.
There is a saturation point for every product. The world junior championship organizers, Hockey Canada and the International Ice Hockey Federation, have found it inside the Bell Centre. Scores of vacant red seats have been more of a prevailing image from the first three days of action in Group A in Montreal than any play created by phenoms Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid. While there's long been a belief that Canadian hockey fans will pay anything to watch the world junior live, that's been refuted by the attendance. A big part of the sales strategy for the tournament involves selling packages for the entire tournament well in advance, but single-game ticket prices that range from $71 to $336 for the Canada-U.S. game on New Year's Eve and $36 to $136 for less marquee matchups such as Slovakia-Germany are an obvious culprit for lower attendance.
Canada played to announced crowd of just 12,733 against Germany on Saturday after playing in front of 14,142 on Friday evening in its opener against Slovakia. The announced turnouts for U.S.-Finland (8,006) and Finland-Slovakia (6,007) were also a far cry from what's been typical for recent first-round games at North America-based WJCs.
At the same time, the crowd sizes at Air Canada Centre for Group B, minus Canada's presence, have been perfectly respectable.
Lest one think this is based on romanticizing the past, here's a quick comparison of preliminary round attendance figures from the first three days in Montreal and Toronto and the prior two North American world juniors. The non-Canada average for Buffalo includes only games staged at First Niagara Center, since the second rink in 2011 was Niagara University's cozy campus arena that only holds about 1,500.
WJC Preliminary Round Average Attendance
Buffalo (main rink only)
* through Day 3
These are small sample sizes, to be fair. It's also likely the Montreal figures will increase with Canada having games yet to come against Finland and arch-rival Team USA, though. Another variable is secondary ticketing, since that market could become flooded discounted ducats as sellers who are taking a "haircut" on tickets rush to get rid of their inventory before it loses all value.
To be fairer still, Hockey Canada and IIHF's primary objective is turning a profit on the event, some of which is invested back into the sport's grass roots. By that token, though, hockey is a sport faced with a lot of accessibility issues not just for potential participants, but for potential fans as well. Setting a price point far beyond the working, middle-class person who doesn't jet off for a tropical holiday vacation also flies in the face to the idea of introducing more people to Canada's game. Montreal also doesn't have the same corporate base as Toronto, where there's no end of companies who will snap up tickets and pass them out to staff or clients.
Hockey Canada and IIHF have created their own problem, which many anticipated as far back as last summer. It seems worth getting into this now, just on the off, off chance there is somehow a sellout for the Canada-U.S. game at the 21,287-seat Bell Centre. It's also pertinent since there will be the same challenge for the next North American world junior in 2017, when Toronto and Montreal will again be the host cities.
The world junior has been riding a wave of ever-increasing interest and media focus since the 'lockout tournament' in 2004-05 that launched a five-year Canadian gold-medal run. It's possible that wave has crested and broken back. If that's the case, it's not Hockey Canada and the IIHF's fault; they're merely finding out the hard way. Taking the tournament to Canada's two oldest and largest NHL markets instead of sticking by the Regina/Saskatoon or Calgary/Edmonton model of splitting the hosting between two cities with a tight bond, might have just been too ambitious.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.