By request, cross-posting this to FBOH from a main board thread
Hurricanes attendance trend in a series of images:
This is of course a global view, which shows the overall "bottom out and rebound" trend that goes along with having not played a playoff game since 2009.
But the real action is here, in per-game attendance:
Just a bunch of squiggly lines, but I wanted to be sure we could see the raw data. Note that the red line is this season, and the blues go from dark to light as you go farther back into the past.
Here's a better way to look at it.
That's the per-game rolling average over the same set of seasons. There are some pretty important things happening here:
1) They started with higher attendance than any time in the past 5 years, which is something we'll come back to.
2) The trend post-Christmas has generally been for attendance to flatline as it became evident that they were out of the playoff race. That trend has changed in the past two seasons.
3) Note that the 2019 trendline is not just substantially higher than previous seasons, but it's continuing to rise -- which is nearly unique in this data set for this time of year. If you look back at the "squiggly line" graph, the reason for that is pretty obvious. Attendance is not cratering as it has during recent garbage-time seasons.
Let's look at the data another way. Here's what it looks like if you rank the games highest-to-lowest by season.
What's interesting here is what's missing in 2019 -- sellouts.
As you can see in the "squiggly line" graph, there have historically been a number of games each season in which attendance spiked due to a marquee road opponent. Those games helped mask a very low average at the lower end of the chart.
But Canes attendance is not rising because they're packing the building for single games. In fact, the upper end of the chart has barely moved at all. Yet attendance is substantially higher -- why?
What you're seeing there is the erosion of the core ticket-buying fanbase between 2013 and 2019. During that period it became evident that there was no longer any benefit to having playoff priority, or even to buying tickets at a slight discount. As a result, the STH base plummeted to what appears to be around 7500 (based on games where virtually no walkups were sold) at the same time that the "regular" single-ticket buyers disappeared.
The red line on this chart shows you that the STH base is beginning to build back up and single-game buyers are coming back. This is NOT about selling out a marquee game on the strength of outside fanbases. It's about the underlying health of the local fanbase, night after night. These numbers show a roughly 20% increase in the size of the "core" over the past year. Also remember that 1) the trendline is increasing per the rolling-average chart, and 2) this is happening WITHOUT having made it back to the playoffs yet.
What does this all mean?
1) All other things equal, the smallest markets should always have the lowest attendance. That is not a market problem per se... it's just an axiomatic assumption that the owners make any time they approve a market. However, there is a difference when attendance is depressed. That's how we get situations like NYI currently, or Chicago and Pittsburgh in the past. What we saw over the past ~5 years in Carolina was a depressed market, where the underlying numbers were not what they should have been in a vacuum. That is quite clear from the annual trends shown above, which stand in contrast to the current season.
2) The numbers above show a market that is very rapidly coming out of that depression. Assuming everything stays on a reasonable course (e.g., not a Stanley Cup but at least a playoff appearance, not a Crosby-level superstar but maybe Aho/Svech competing for trophies) everything we see right now indicates that the market core is being restored to its norm. Once that happens, it's a reasonable assumption that Carolina will go back to being what everyone expects from a smaller market -- something like 16K/game average attendance, variable according to the team's trajectory.
The fact that this is happening WITHOUT significant on-ice achievements very strongly suggests that the current ownership is running things the right way, and that they should ignore outsiders who say otherwise. The fact that they have been even more successful in doubling-down on things that get the most vicious criticism (the wild marketing success of the Bunch of Jerks campaign, successful Whalers tributes, pursuit of an outdoor game) appears to confirm that theory.
The next logical assumption is that other franchises will observe this success and begin to imitate it, at which point the critics will reverse course and support their own organization's copycat efforts.