Monday, December 3, 2007

Hockey + Economics = More Fights, Hold the Scoring Please

Anyone who's been paying attention to the sports landscape in the United States can tell you that hockey has a tenuous hold on the title "major sport". In reality the NHL is not on the same level in terms of revenues, relevance or attention as the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball and understandably the league has been working to change this. The three issues the league has primarily focused on when trying to increase its fan base have been: parity, scoring and fighting.

The league has worked to increase parity under the belief that fans will better support a team that has a better chance of winning every night, increase scoring because of a belief that games with more goals are more exciting to fans (and as a reaction to the incredibly low scoring games that were all too common in the early 2000's) and decrease fighting under the belief that the NHL's reputation as a league of violence was turning away casual fans.

So what actually determines interest (and hence attendance) in hockey? This was the question Rodney J. Paul attempted to answer in this paper, published in April 2003 in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

Winning and Parity

Not surprisingly Dr. Paul found that teams that tend to perform better on the ice in terms of standings points tend to draw bigger crowds, all else being equal. Specifically an average of one more point per game raises the attendance by 1021.809 fans per game, and by 1426.866 fans per game in the United States. Now, obviously one more point per game is an enormous difference in success. The best teams in the NHL in the 2006-07 season (Buffalo and Detroit) averaged 1.37 points per game while the worst averaged (Philadelphia) averaged 0.68, so the effect is not as large as might be expected. However, previous season's points (one additional point from the previous season means 120 more fans per game for U.S. teams, all else being equal) and playoff success (reaching the second round of the playoffs or further) were also statistically significant. Given this it seems pretty clear than more successful teams draw bigger crowds. Not shocking, I know. But since team success has significant impact on attendance and the NHL wants all of its franchises to be financially healthy it makes economic sense to increase parity, and especially to do so by the means of a salary cap.


The league has been adamant in its insistence that fans want to see more scoring. This insistence has been the impetus behind a number of changes in recent years: not allowing goalies to play the puck in the corners, calling hooking and holding penalties when there is even intent to hook or hold, decreasing the size of goalie equipment, making a team that has iced the puck keep its players on the ice for the next faceoff and calling delay of game any time a player puts the puck out of play while in their own end. Given how loudly NHL head office officials insist fans want to see scoring Dr. Paul's finding are surprising: if all else is equal, the number of goals per game a team scores actually lowers average attendance (this coefficient was also statistically significant). On the other hand, visitors with higher per-game averages in terms of goals scored did draw bigger crowds. I would attribute this to fans desire to see marquee players, who are general offensive talents, a variable Dr. Paul did not control for. At best, the jury is out on this one, which makes you wonder why the league is so concerned with upping scoring.


Do the fans really like fighting? That's a question that been posed in a number of different forms for years now and the overwhelming statistical evidence says 'yes'.

According to Dr. Paul's paper an increase of one fight per game will raise per-game attendance by 3859.880 fans; 4686.510 fans for U.S. teams, all else being equal. As with points per game a difference of one fight per game would be huge - the Anaheim (Fightin') Ducks led the NHL with 0.87 fights per game last year and the Detroit Red Wings had the fewest with 0.12 per game. So while in increase in fights of one per game is unlikely it's feasible that a team could see a 20% increase in their fighting majors which would result in 937 more fans per game (in the U.S.) (note: Detroit is playing to 88.8% capacity this season; Anaheim is playing to 107% capacity).

I'm not a hockey fight advocate nut and don't want to see bench clearers, the league averaging six fights a game or line brawls on a regular basis. It already irks me when people have the notion that hockey is just constant fighting and just whine about wanting to see a fight when they're at a game and I want the league to be viewed as the toughest sport in the world, not a spectacle. But I, like most hockey fans I think, do like fighting and think it has a place in the professional game. Like the league's obsession with increasing scoring it is curious, to say the least, that there has been such a crackdown on fighting when the numbers seem to clearly indicate that it draws more fans.

My theory is that one of two things is going on. One possibility is that the NHL has different data or is getting different results from what is presented in Dr. Paul's paper. However, I would be pretty surprised if that were the case as it's unlikely people's preferences would have changed so drastically in only a few years. What I think is more likely is that the NHL is chasing people who are either casual fans or are not fans of the NHL and in doing so they're following an opinion that is parroted by so many talking heads with little or no knowledge of the NHL or the game of hockey. It seems like the league is chasing these people and trying to make them into fans which really just isn't going to happen. This is in large part, I believe, due to the fact the Gary Bettman does not come from a hockey background and thus is predisposed to give these voices more pull than they should have. Sadly I do not have any analytical data for this but my experience has been that when people start talking about what a travesty it is that the NHL has lesser penalties for fighting than other sports, they're people who wouldn't watch the NHL anyway (seriously, the next time it happens, ask).

The reality is that fighting, along with exciting games with plenty of scoring chances, draws crowds as long as the fighting doesn't get out of control. That's why hockey was booming in the early to mid 90s - the 80s (and early 90s, to me, but maybe that's because I can't remember much before then) were great hockey and so people started to sit up and take notice. Now the league is chasing whatever additional attention and revenue it can get in the next six months without thinking about what it can do to make itself the best professional sports league in the world in the long run.

That's really what it comes down to. The league needs to stop its obsession with month-to-month attendance and dreaming up new gimmicks to try and put a few more people in the seats for a short period of time and instead focus on making the league the most exciting league in the world and marketing it as so. If they're able to do that concerns over the NHLs popularity and viability should cease.



1) For all the rule changes; Some silly and some good, scoring is NOT up from pre-lockout levels. Are bigger nets soon to be coming?
2) You were 1000% correct about fighting! It is almost universally loved by 95%+ of fans. No one leaves a game during a fight. The favourite player on a team is usually the leading scorer AND the fighter. Coincidence?
3) Why pander to folks who hate hockey anyway? Why alienate the rest of us by doing so? Eliminate the instigator penalty and fighting increases and stick incidents decrease! The players want that too! They should know best!

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