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NHL Ticket Prices And The Average Fan

What's wrong with today's NHL? Just ask the paying customers.


Updated January 20, 2004
As great as the game looks on television, you have to get out and experience hockey's real world from time to time.

I spent this past Christmas in Alberta, a trip that included two nights as a guest of the NHL, one in Calgary and one in Edmonton.

An old friend I hadn’t seen in years arranged the Edmonton game. The Flames were in town, so the only tickets he could find were pretty high up, at $50 each. The Oilers lost 2-1, failing to put up the kind of fight one expects from a rivalry known as “The Battle of Alberta.” A cranky hometown crowd booed their listless heroes off the ice.

Back in Calgary, the Flames did not fare so well, shut out 2-0 by Vancouver. Tickets for that one, also near the roof, cost $70 apiece.

Despite the results, both nights were fun. The upper deck is not such a bad place to sit. You lose the intimacy of the game, but the full-ice perspective is great and there’s a festive sense of being part of a communal event (even in Edmonton, where the community turned on the team).

But for all the cash that was laid out, it would have been nice to see more than five goals, and more than one home-team goal, in 120 minutes of hockey. It would have been great if the Oilers had not looked so tired, or if Calgary’s Oleg Saprykin had at least hit the net on his penalty shot, instead of shooting wide.

If tickets cost, say, $20 each, it would be easy to shrug off a low-scoring game or disappointing effort. But when the budget is into triple figures before you and your friends even get into the parking lot, the stakes are automatically higher.

There has been a good deal written and said about the state of the current NHL “product.” Among hockey’s chattering classes, just about everyone sees big problems in the game, and everyone has solutions. Some of this is the product of cogent analysis by people who watch the game closely. Much of it is second-hand, hyperbolized nonsense.

But just about all of it comes from sports writers, not fans. Although they work on the fans’ behalf, sports writers are a different animal altogether. For one thing, they are paid to go to NHL games. And they are not there for amusement; they’re working.

The divide between those who line up for tickets and those who sit in the press box scarfing down free nachos is nicely charted in one of the more sensible sports columns to appear this season. Mike Toth, an anchorman with Canada’s Sportsnet channel, joined the unwashed for a game in Buffalo recently, and drew a most sensible conclusion: the NHL’s biggest problem is not the quality of the product, it’s the price.

Toth suspects – and I suspect he’s right – that most fans wouldn’t mind an occasional uninspired match, or a visit from the Minnesota Wild with their zero-man-in forecheck, if only they weren’t racking up astonishing credit card bills for the privilege of seeing it in person.

He points out that when he pays 12 bucks to see his local junior team, he rarely hears a discouraging word: “Are the games always thrilling? Of course not. But when you're paying a reasonable price for a ticket, you don't mind as much.”

Almost anyone who pays to see an occasional NHL game can see his point (and I’m talking about regular folks who pay real money, not the club-seat weenies out for a lark on the company expense account).

By NHL standards, the prices in Edmonton are not bad, ranging from $33.50 for standing room to $147.50 at ice level. Calgary lists its price range as $23.50 to $175.00 (all prices in Canadian dollars). But for those who buy at the cheapest end of the scale, it’s like watching the game from an airplane window. To see anything at all, you need a comfortable budget, especially when you add parking, food, beer, etc.

As with any commodity, the price of an arena seat is set by supply and demand. This is why it always rings false when NHL execs try to link ticket prices to player salaries. The Dallas Stars tried that spin last week, when announcing reduced prices for next season. But the reality is that this year’s Stars’ tickets have not been selling as briskly as the team had hoped.

Of course, the Oilers and Flames are filling plenty of seats this year, giving them no incentive to make the games any cheaper. So my buddy in Edmonton will continue to watch almost all his Oilers’ games on television, even though he lives a ten-minute walk from the team’s home at Rexall Place.

But given the choice between a wider ice surface, no red line, shootouts as tiebreakers or a $20 seat with a good view, I have no doubt which change he would make if he were NHL commissioner for a day.

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