Sens' attendance slump a symptom of decade-long malaise

Blame the distant suburban arena. Blame ticket prices. Blame the Redblacks. While these factors have some merit in explaining the early attendance slump for the Ottawa Senators, they pale in comparison to the big reason: the absence of hope.

Attendance worries nothing new, but 11,061 on Tuesday night a low point in early season

The Ottawa Senators victory over the Arizona Coyotes had a paid attendance of 11,061. (Francois Laplante/Getty Images)

Blame the distant suburban arena. Blame ticket prices. Blame the Redblacks. Heck, blame the casual Ottawa sports fan too.

While these factors have some merit in explaining the early attendance slump for the Ottawa Senators, just three home games into the 2016 season, they pale in comparison to the big reason. And it's this: the absence of hope.

In the nine complete seasons following the Sens' appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 2006-07, they've won just one playoff series and they've missed the playoffs four times.

More than that, their year-to-year inconsistency in those nine years means its impossible to chart a pattern, or direction, for the team: four out of the five years they made the playoffs, they missed it the next year. Every year they missed the playoffs, they followed up by making the playoffs. Are they rebuilding or contending? The answer isn't obvious to the fan, the one buying that hope.

This decade of inconsistency on the ice and budget measures that have seen the team shed — and not replace — expensive contracts, has meant the proverbial chickens are now home to roost. On Tuesday night's tilt against the Arizona Coyotes, the paid attendance was listed at 11,061, far below the 19,153 seat capacity.

This is not a blip. Looking at figures supplied by the Senators, average attendance last year was at its lowest since the team expanded arena capacity from 18,500 to 19,153 in 2005.

The Ottawa Senators are celebrating their 25th year of existence at a time when their team is at a crossroads. (Ottawa Senators)

Marketing challenges

It's unfortunate in the team's 25th anniversary season that interest appears to be on the decline. While the team is promising anniversary events to boost fan fun, it's unlikely to make an impact without corresponding victories.

University of Ottawa associate professor, and sports management researcher, Eric MacIntosh isn't surprised by this early slump, citing several more reasons the casual fan hasn't showed up yet: pleasant summer-like weather, the NFL being in full swing, and perhaps most interestingly, his belief that the Senators have not stepped up on the fan experience side of things, the way Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group has done with its teams at Lansdowne. 

"If you look at what OSEG does, there's an entire environment around going to the game. There are things to do around the venue. And so, for the Senators, they kind of suffer a little bit from a lack of entertainment that's directly in the area," says Macintosh.

The team is obviously hoping a move to the downtown could boost attendance and the overall experience. But that's a solution for a decade from now.

And Ottawa's proximity to Toronto and Montreal has always fuelled a collective identity crisis, especially when the team isn't winning. No one tracks the number of Leafs and Habs jerseys in the crowd when the Senators host these teams, but you can bet there were far fewer in evidence back in 2007. 

But more than merchandise, more than gimmicks, more than season tickets, pro sports teams need to sell the promise of glory. It's what keeps the casual fan coming back.

If you look at what OSEG does, there's an entire environment around going to the game.- Eric MacIntosh, University of Ottawa sports management researcher

'Hamburglar' year seems a long time ago

Let's look back to the last time hope was in big supply here in the capital.

Two seasons ago the Sens embarked on an improbable, almost impossible, run to the playoffs on the back of goaltending sensation Andy "Hamburglar" Hammond. No one was talking about attendance woes back then.

The team followed up that season by missing the playoffs. Again.

What do Sens fans have to hope for these days? They hope that their generational talent in Erik Karlsson doesn't flee the moment his contract is up in a few years. They hope ownership might some day start spending big money again. They hope for a downtown arena. They hope to scrape their way into the playoffs.

These are not high hopes. And they are a far cry from the days Sens fans legitimately hoped to finish first overall in the league, or for a deep run into the playoffs or to finally knock out the hated Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto, meanwhile, seemed on the verge, finally, of seeing its home attendance drop after years of blind allegiance from Leafs Nation, but now has renewed hope in the form of first overall draft pick Auston Matthews. To get there, Leafs fans had to accept a full-on dismantling — in fact tanking — to get that coveted first overall pick.

But that's a road neither Ottawa fans nor ownership seem willing to revisit. Ownership has always said this team needs to stay competitive to keep fans interested, and new general manager Pierre Dorion doubled down on that philosophy.

"Why can't we win now? Let's just not accept that we're going to be good in a few years," Dorion said when he took the job, replacing Bryan Murray.

The Sens are up against dozens of obstacles when it comes to attracting fans. And the decade-long wait for a possible arena downtown is not the answer. If this team wants to remain relevant and viable in the years to come, it has to prove to fans it's serious about winning now. Then those 8,000 missing fans may come back.

Fans and others speak up on Twitter