Good seats still available: Flames and Oilers attendance lags during pandemic

Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
2 years ago
Heading into the final few games of the 2021-22 season, two things are true about the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Both teams are headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs after strong regular seasons, but both teams have played much of their home schedules in front of several thousand empty seats.
Heading into the final home dates for the Flames and Oilers, attendance is down in each market compared to the three seasons prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attendance at a glance
2021-22 (a)15,45780.116,14388.0
2021-22 (b)16,60986.116,76991.4
(a) – Early-season restrictions: full capacity, masks and vaccine checks mandatory
(b) – Late-season restrictions: full capacity, no mask or vaccine requirements
(Capacity percentages based on 19,289 for Calgary, 18,347 for Edmonton; attendance data from ESPN and Hockey Reference and based on game-sheet reported counts of tickets distributed.)
Some context: Rogers Place in Edmonton opened at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, while the Saddledome opened at the beginning of the 1983-84 season. As a result, ticket prices are a little bit higher in Edmonton (because of the shiny new building). While not reflected in the above table, nine of Edmonton’s home dates were held during Alberta’s provincial attendance restrictions while 12 of Calgary’s games were impacted.
Regardless of the context, attendance in both Calgary and Edmonton dipped from prior levels when games returned at the beginning of the 2021-22 season (moreso in Calgary) and haven’t fully bounced back yet. The Saddledome has had one full sell-out this season – Mar. 26 against Edmonton – while Rogers Place has had two (Nov. 20 against Chicago and Apr. 9 against Colorado), though a few other Edmonton home games got close to sell-outs.
But in hockey-mad Alberta, it seems odd that two very good hockey teams aren’t selling out their home games. Why aren’t these games selling out?
There are a lot of potential explanations:
  • Lingering, general pandemic anxiety: The pandemic is an ongoing, evolving situation, and even with vaccinations there’s a certain amount of underlying anxiety for a lot of fans about cramming into a confined space with 18,000 other people.
  • Lingering, general economic anxiety: Bearing in mind that Alberta’s doing fairly well relative to the rest of Canada, the provincial economy is still very much in flux and perhaps folks that would’ve spent funds on hockey tickets either can’t do so anymore or don’t want to – maybe their entertainment dollars are being spent elsewhere, or they’ve shrunk over the past two years. While other forms of entertainment can be expensive, too, it’s not like going to a hockey game is an inexpensive night out.
  • They like their living rooms: Hockey fans in Canada have been in their living rooms watching hockey on their own TVs for the 2020 bubble playoffs and the entire 2020-21 season. They’ve avoided spending time navigating traffic, paying for parking, and they’ve been eating their own snacks and drinking their own beer for nearly two years. A lot of fans might simply prefer their living room set-ups after having that be their only option to experience games for so long. The couch may be their current preferred option for regular season games.
As for why attendance seems to lag slightly more in Calgary than in Edmonton – despite a bigger arena down south, Edmonton has a higher average attendance and more sell-outs and near sell-outs than Calgary – the explanations might be fairly simple.
  • Post-2019 playoff anxiety in Calgary: We’ve heard pretty consistently from Flames fans all season that they’re a bit hesitant to get on-board with the 2021-22 Flames because of how the 2019 season ended – quickly and spectacularly at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. Many fans seem reluctant to invest time and/or finances, at least during the regular season, because they’re worried this could be another 2019. (If we’re being honest, a lot of Oilers fans might have similar anxiety about their team, too, based on their lack of post-season success.)
  • Edmonton has a newer, nicer arena: Rogers Place is much, much newer than the Saddledome, and going to a game might seem like more of an “event” to potential Edmonton game-goers than to their counterparts in Calgary.
There’s good news and bad news regarding attendance as we head into the playoffs. The bad news is that the Flames and Oilers can’t do anything about the pandemic or structural economic factors. But if each team gets off to a good start in the post-season, it seems really likely that fans will start to believe again and head on down to the ‘Dome and Rogers Place to join the festivities.
Much like challenges on the ice, any concerns regarding attendance levels for the Flames and Oilers probably have a very simple solution.
Just keep winning.


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