NEW YORK – “Who’s no. 1?” ESPN The Magazine asks on this week’s cover with a handful of tickets. In order to answer the question, the magazine took a look at the 122 teams from the four ‘big leagues’ in North America, the MLB (baseball), NBA (basketball), NFL (American football) and the NHL (hockey).
The magazine calculated the value of a franchise to its fans, or in other words, which clubs are the best deals for sport fans. The eight criteria, sorted by weight are: bang for the buck (wins in the past three years per revenue from the fans), fan relations, honesty and loyalty of the ownership, affordability, stadium experience, player, coaching, and title track.
The result is a great advertisement for hockey. In the top ten you can find five hockey teams, two baseball teams, two basketball teams and one football team.
The number one comes from baseball with the Los Angeles Angels while the Carolina Hurricanes were in second place – and the best hockey team in the eyes of ESPN.
The other top ten hockey teams were the Detroit Red Wings (4th), the Washington Capitals (6th), the Pittsburgh Penguins (8th) and the St. Louis Blues (10th). Eleventh place is also occupied by a hockey team, the Anaheim Ducks.
So, what does this study tell us? And how can it be, that a non-traditional underdog franchise tops all other hockey teams?
The study calculates how much a fan gets back from their club, and how much they pay to support the team. Included are: performance, entertainment, friendliness, passion, whatever determines a fan-club relationship.
It is driven by ticket prices and other revenues for the club, and by the performance of players, coaches, club management on and off the ice on the other hand. It is a ratio between fan happiness and fan spending.
So, ESPN tells us that the baseball Angels and the Carolina Hurricanes handle their money in the most efficient way to attract fans.
Let’s look at the Hurricanes. The average ticket price is $38.38, which is half the price of Toronto, and lower than the league average of $49.51. Despite having the low ticket price, the Canes are successful on the ice. They won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and barely missed the playoffs the following two years but made it to the Conference Finals this year.
Only one team with a lower average price, the St. Louis Blues, made it to the playoffs this year as well.
ESPN calls it a wallet- and fan-friendly Hurricane Experience. Not only are they relatively successful, taking the budget into consideration, they can pride themselves on making players accessible to the community. Practices are open to the public, and players stick around to sign autographs.
Hugely popular teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs (120th of 122 teams), the Montreal Canadiens (100th) and the New York Rangers (93th) had poor results.
It’s not easy to have a close fan-club relationship when the entire town is crazy about the team like in Montreal or Toronto. And they can afford to be ranked low and to have high ticket prices. They’re considered the most valuable hockey franchises.
In Toronto, the low ranking is obvious as the Maple Leafs combine the most expensive tickets with long-term underachieving. They haven’t won the Cup and even not the Conference Finals for more than four decades, and haven’t made the playoffs since the lockout.
ESPN makes its conclusions by combining quotes from a fan blog: Better go to Ottawa or Buffalo when Leafs fans take over the building and can see their team lose for 40% less.
It’s also not surprising that many former low-end teams made the top-ten of the Ultimate Standings. The draft system allowed them to become more successful, more entertaining, and all that in non-major hockey markets for bargain price tickets.
Youngsters like the Sidney Crosby and Eric Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin are big reasons why Carolina, Pittsburgh and Washington did so well in the ESPN study. They’re big stars, every club would like to have them, and they help develop struggling hockey markets.
The study shows how important it is to think of the new generation and to develop youth hockey, both in North America and in the rest of the world. It also shows why it is important to help this development as well in non-major countries – think of Anze Kopitar from Slovenia.
And it shows why it could be helpful to have an international transfer agreement, where the NHL could give something back to the organizations overseas. The NHL knows that it wouldn’t be the same league without the likes of Ovechkin, especially not for the rank-low-draft-first teams, where entertaining players and smart managers are more crucial than in any high-profile franchise.