NOTE: Please keep in mind that this is not an exact, cut and dry thing, but more to give you an idea of what teams in these towns bring in, and what towns might be a fit for hockey based on the info we found. Yes, there are a ton of other things to consider that maybe be a factor, like average income, racial make-up, if military bases are nearby, arena location, arena condition and amenities, etc. And honestly, each of those could be its own story on how it affects attendance. So if you wonder about those things, you are certainly valid and right to wonder, but we tried to keep this like a Cliff Notes version so you get an idea of how towns and teams support hockey.
Earlier this week we penned a piece about how the Berlin BlackJacks were doomed from the start, and it got us wondering how a team like that is even allowed to get started when the odds are stacked against them in a number of ways.
But that piece also led us down an interesting path in terms of minor league hockey research. It opened our eyes and gave us insight into how many fans in certain towns actually show up to watch hockey games, and an idea of how big a town needs to be in order to possibly be viable. Berlin was drawing four percent of its population to the BlackJacks’ home games for an attendance of 390 fans a night, a really bad number on paper, but in terms of percentage of population coming to games, higher than the FHL’s average this season.
So we’ve expanded that research and decided to dive deeper into it for both the Federal Hockey League and Southern Professional Hockey League, to try to determine what size cities these leagues should be eyeing if they want teams that are going to last.
Let’s start with the FHL.
FHL – Non-Carolina data
What we did was found the population of each city in the league (minus Carolina, but more on them later), averaged their attendance since they’ve been in existence, and determined what percent of the population goes to games to determine what we think is a minimum city size that would be acceptable for the league.
Here are the approximate city sizes, again minus Carolina:
- Danville, IL: 31,500 city population
- Elmira, NY: 29,200 city population
- Mentor, OH: 47,000 city population
- Port Huron, MI: 29,000 city population
- Watertown, NY: 26,000 city population
Now, for this research we also throw out Mentor and Elmira because they’ve only played three home games combined between them, all in Mentor, and attendance was only announced for one of the games, so that leaves us three teams that have been around a while, which should give us a fair idea of their average attendance since becoming a team. Average attendance is according to HockeyDB.
- Watertown Wolves/Privateers: 841 fans per game over 4-plus seasons
- Port Huron Prowlers: 994 over 3-plus seasons
- Danville Dashers: 830 over 7-plus seasons
According to our sources within the FHL, a team needs a minimum of 750 to 1000 fans a night to survive, depending on corporate support and operating budget, so these teams all meet the reported league minimum in that sense.
But how are they drawing over their tenures in terms of the total population that comes to see them? For this it’s simply average attendance divided by town population.
- Watertown: 3.2 percent of population at each game.
- Port Huron: 3.4 percent of population at each game.
- Danville: 2.6 percent of population at each game.
- Combined Average: 3.06 percent of population at each game.
So the average FHL team when it gets plunked down can expect roughly three percent of its population to turn up to games, at least in the north in what are considered “traditional” hockey markets.
So how big of a city should the FHL be eyeing in the north if it wants a team that is going to last?
If the team has great corporate and volunteer support (and a shoestring budget), to hit that 750 minimum fans a night with three percent of the population coming, they would need a city of 25,000 people, so a little bit smaller than the size of Watertown.
With average corporate support or maybe a slightly higher operating budget, to hit the needed 1000 fans per night with our three percent average, they would need a city with approximately 33,300 people in it, or, one slightly larger than Danville.
Again, keep in mind that these are just averages and based on rough estimates of corporate support, so a town of 33,300 could see as little as 2.2 percent of the town come out to still hit that 750 fans a night mark if they had good corporate support and small budget, while your smaller town of 25,000 with average corporate support would need four percent of the population to come out each night to hit 1000 fans a night, the same percentage number Berlin was drawing, so completely possible.
To summarize: In the north, the FHL should be eyeing towns of no less than 25,000 people in them, and really, should be trying to find towns closer to 30,000 people just to give themselves some added insurance.
And as far as the most recent expansion rumors we heard about the FHL in the north, they were considering teams in Battle Creek, MI and Salisbury, MD. Battle Creek would be the biggest city in the league (non-Winston-Salem) with a population of 51k people, so it would only need about 1.5 percent of the population to average 765 fans, while Salisbury has a population approaching 33,000 people, so both cities fall into the mold of what the FHL should be eyeing in the north, at least according to our research.
The SPHL data raises questions
But what about the SPHL? The gold-standard for Single-A, unaffiliated minor league hockey in the United States. You probably thought we would do the Carolina Thunderbirds data next, but since they fall more into the fit of the SPHL than the FHL, we’ll do the SPHL next and let what we find here help with our research into Carolina and the FHL in the South.
On average, the attendance at SPHL games is at least three times that of the FHL, and that makes sense because they have bigger arenas, but most importantly, tons more people to draw from for their games, even if they aren’t in a traditional hockey market.
Take a look at the population of each city the SPHL has a team in:
- Knoxville: 186,000 city population
- Birmingham: 211,000 city population
- Roanoke: 100,000 city population
- Macon: 114,000 city population
- Fayetteville: 210,000 city population
- Peoria: 113,000 city population
- Huntsville: 195,000 city population
- Evansville: 119,000 city population
- Quad City: 384,000 cities population
- Pensacola: 54,000 city population
Right away you notice we have two outliers in Quad City and Pensacola, one WAY on the high side, and one way on the low side, but the kind of balance each other out and give us an average SPHL city size of 168,000.
But how does each team do at the gate? And with the SPHL being more established and around longer, we have more data to use for this, and more teams, to see average attendance during the time each city has had a team in the SPHL.
- Knoxville: 3,492 average over 14-plus seasons
- Birmingham: 2,426 over 1-plus season
- Roanoke: 3,292 over 2-plus seasons
- Macon: 2,000 over 3-plus seasons
- Fayetteville: 3,182 over 14-plus seasons (includes FireAntz years)
- Peoria: 3,959 over 5-plus seasons
- Huntsville: 3,785 over 14-plus seasons
- Evansville: 2,454 over 2-plus seasons
- Quad City: 3,904 over 4-plus seasons (includes ECHL years)
- Pensacola: 3,625 over 9-plus seasons
So aside from Macon, every SPHL team falls in the range of about 2,400 to just under 4,000 fans per night. That range falls into the area of what we’ve heard, again depending on lease and other operating expenses, that SPHL teams need anywhere from a 2,500 to 3,000 minimum to keep the team going.
But what’s odd is that population size has no bearing on the crowds being drawn in, and for the most part, aside from Quad City and Macon, the smaller cities seem to have supported hockey better than their larger city counterparts. But there are other things to keep in mind on this as well, like Huntsville being dragged down by the earlier years when they didn’t draw as well, and Fayetteville being propped up by some of the early years of the FireAntz that saw big crowds. But again, we have over 60 seasons worth of attendance data to draw from in the SPHL, so for the most part, this should give us a good representative of hockey in the south.
But how does the SPHL, in terms of the percentage of population at games, stack up compared to the FHL and as a whole?
- Knoxville: 1.9 percent of population at each game
- Birmingham: 1.1 percent of population at each game
- Roanoke: 3.3 percent of population at each game
- Macon: 1.7 percent of population at each game
- Fayetteville: 1.5 percent of population at each game
- Peoria: 3.5 percent of population at each game
- Huntsville: 1.9 percent of population at each game
- Evansville: 2 percent of population at each game
- Quad City: 1 perent of population at each game
- Pensacola: 6.7 percent of population at each game
- COMBINED AVERAGE: 2.46 percent of population at each game
And this is where the questions start.
Because in a weird twist: our three FHL cities outdraw the SPHL average city in terms of population at each game, 3.06 to 2.46, not exactly a narrow margin. Basically, if you dropped each FHL team to 2.46 percent of the population coming to the games, every team would be on the verge of folding or just barely scraping by. But such is life when your average city in that league is only about 28,000 people.
But the other issue to bring up here is the actual population number: Each city that we used so far in the FHL is on an island. It is only the city itself in the immediate area and has no suburbs, or very very little other population to draw from.
While in the SPHL, almost all of these cities are the center of a metro area that may have another few hundred thousand people, or more, living outside of the technical city limits. For instance, Birmingham is a major media market, around the Top-40 for TV markets, and has over 1 MILLION people in its metro area, which would drop its percentage of population at games to a fraction of a percentage. And then there’s Pensacola, who skews the data because the town itself is only 54,000 people…but has a metro area of more than 400,000. Just putting Pensacola’s population at 400,000 people instead of 54,000 drops the average population at games in the SPHL down to about two percent.
And then there are places, again like Birmingham, that play in the suburbs but use the big city name for its team. Birmingham plays in Pelham, a suburb with about 25,000 people in it, so if we just used that number they’d be bringing in 10 percent of the population, an absurd number, but we know a large chunk of fans are coming from outside Pelham.
So what size city should the SPHL be eyeing if it wants to hit 3,000 fans a night for a future expansion franchise? Let’s use those two numbers, both the 2.46 and 2.0 percent of population numbers to find out.
At 2.46 percent, you would need a city of at least 125,000 people in it to hit that coveted 3,000 fans a night mark, and a town that size fits right in with Evansville, Macon, Peoria, and Roanoke. But if you drop that number to our more realistic 2.0, then you need a city with at least 150,000 people in it, or, a town 18,000 people less than the average SPHL city.
Or, if you took the average SPHL city size of 168,000 people and put a team in it that did league average numbers, it would draw an average of 4,147 a night at our 2.46 number, or 3,372 at our 2.0 number. So even a difference in population attendance of less than half a percent can be a difference of roughly 800 fans a night, not a small number in the SPHL. So you can especially see how an even smaller dip in the FHL can be the difference between a team being strong, and a team that folds.
So what type of cities fit that criteria of 150,000 people for possible future expansion? You could look to places that had teams like Columbus, GA, or new cities like Chattanooga, TN, or even a place like Savannah, GA who is just under 150,000 at the moment, growing fast, and reportedly getting a new civic center in the coming years.
That’s not to say any of the above places are for sure getting a team, or even rumored to be getting a team, but just an idea of what type of places the SPHL should likely be eyeing if it has plans to get beyond 10 teams in the future, or if it needs to replace a team that folds.
Carolina and the FHL in the south
From Day 1, the Carolina Thunderbirds have been the gold standard in the FHL, drawing in record crowds both nightly and over the course of the season.
But how do they stack up compared to the SPHL, and is there any hint both the SPHL and FHL data can give us for possible future expansion in the south? Because the FHL has said that it wants more teams in the south around Carolina, and it sure would help to have some idea of what you should be looking for in a possible hockey city.
Since joining the FHL, the Thunderbirds have averaged 2,252 fans per night, a MASSIVE number that’s more than double the next closest team currently in the FHL, but still worse than every team in the SPHL but Macon. Winston-Salem has a population of around 244,000 people, so even an average of 2,252 fans a night is still less than one percent of the population coming to games, which is actually the lowest of any team in either league.
So because Winston-Salem is more closely related to the SPHL than its FHL counterparts, and for the sake of looking at southern expansion, we’ll say that the average FHL city in the south would draw somewhere between the SPHL’s low average of 2.0, and between the Thunderbirds’ mark of 0.9 percent of the population, and say they are roughly going to bring in 1.5 percent of the population.
Again, keep in mind that the FHL needs far fewer fans than the SPHL, but in the south where leases and ice time are likely to be more expensive costs will be higher, so lets say these new southern FHL team would need to break 1,000 fans a night to make it, up from our 750 minimum in the north.
So at 1.5 percent of the population coming out to FHL games in the South, would need a city of around at least 75,000 people (75,000 at 1.5 percent is 1,050 fans a night), roughly three times the size of our average northern FHL city, to bring in the needed numbers to stay solvent.
That would make cities like Asheville, NC at 92,000 people (a place that has been in FHL expansion rumors), Wilmington, NC at 120,000 people, places that should be well-considered, while also ruling out places like Florence, SC, which fits more into the city size a northern team would be eyeing. And who’s to say that the FHL isn’t eyeing some of the SPHL cities we mentioned above, so they’d have even more population to draw from and potentially get bigger crowds like Carolina gets, even if it is less than one percent of the population.
So to wrap this all up, your average hockey team is drawing somewhere between 2-3 percent of the population, and to think that you’re going to bring in more than four or five percent of the population, even in a small town, is very rare, and basically unrealistic to think.
And the other thing to keep in mind in all of this, for both the FHL and SPHL: Rinks. Yes a city may check all the boxes in terms of fans, population and whatever else, but if they don’t have a suitable arena that has ice-making capabilities, then it doesn’t matter how good the town looks on paper, because they aren’t playing hockey without a good rink and ice.
Now there are a lot of other factors that going into these things as well, like other entertainment options, ticket prices, weather, and how much a team is marketed within its city or online, but with 13 cities and more than 80 seasons of attendance data to look it, you get a rough idea of what cities may or may not be viable for a future team, or even what teams may be in danger of folding.