Crowded Out

Are Panthers attendances as impressive as they appear at first glance? Paul Balm investigates.

These are strange times for me. Last week I wrote about ice hockey which I don’t normally do. I’m not sure if it was particularly successful but it pays for you to try and do something different every now and again, or so I’ve been told. This week the inner recesses of my mind have led me somewhere else, making me doubt something that has been seen as THE success story of the Nottingham Panthers. Essentially, my own mind has decided to make me say something contentious. It’s also leading me into a situation where I could, unless I’m very careful, end up upsetting people. That isn’t my intention, I’m not one of those people who is says things just to be contentious and stir things up, I can’t think of being anything worse than being considered as the Katie Hopkins of British ice hockey, and I’ll try my hardest to avoid it but if I do upset you then I’m sorry, I hope it doesn’t stop you enjoying this. I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy it. I suspect that writing this is going to involve re-writes aplenty and I don’t like re-writes, I just want to get the words down and move on. I think this will be different. I’ve had to do some research as well and I never do research.

I was looking at the crowd last night at the Coventry game and the obvious size difference in comparison to a Saturday night got me thinking about our crowds in general. You can’t argue that Panthers crowds have increased significantly over the 16 years we’ve been in the NIC. The previous twenty years were spent in the old Ice Stadium and that couldn’t physically hold any more than approximately 2,800. Now, I might be looking back at the old place through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia but I don’t remember many games in that place that weren’t watched by a full crowd or something that was pretty close to it. Pre-season friendlies and the first few games of the season were exceptions but that’s not really that much different now. So it was pretty full pretty much all the time and tickets used to be pretty difficult to get hold of which, and I’ll admit I’m making assumptions here, meant that you can pretty much say that the size of the core support was around that figure (give or take away support).
Panthers crowds have clearly increased since then but they’ve also changed. That core support that they had in the Ice Stadium has been added to by, and this is where I have to be careful, a whole group of people who aren’t the hardcore fans that the likes of you (I’m guessing) and me are. I think I’d better explain what I mean by that. I look upon the core support as being the people who are either at every home game or want to be. I’m talking about the people who turn up to watch hockey week in week out or follow it on Twitter or watch the web… oh sorry. Your definition might vary, it probably does, but the definition itself is not what is important here. Everyone’s definition is always going to be different, any number of forum, Facebook, Twitter posts prove that on a daily basis, that’s OK. The important thing is that it exists and how many people it contains.

I asked people last night how many people that core contained and predictably I got about as many answers as people I asked. The figures quoted ranged from anywhere between 2,500 and 4,500. That’s some difference and it’s very possibly down to that definition but that’s human nature. I know there’s lies, damn lies and then statistics and you can use the same statistics to berate or praise people with equal ease but there are things in both those figures and everyone in between that should give Panthers cause for concern.

We’ll start with that bottom figure, 2,500. If that is the case then for all the praise that Panthers get for increasing their crowds year on year then I’m sorry but I would have to say that they have failed. If, as that figure would suggest the core (remember we’re using that 2,800 from the old barn as our base figure) has actually dropped. You’ve got to take into account the fact that some long term fans will have drifted over time so these figures can never be absolute but an overall loss in the number of core fans over 16 years means that Panthers are singularly failing to turn new fans into long term fans or to put it in a purely business context new/casual customers are not being turned into long term loyal customers in sufficient numbers to replace those customers that are being lost for whatever reason.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the upper figure is overly impressive either. It may be a 50% (approx.) increase on 2000 but that only means there’s a net gain of about a 100 a year. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are very probably ten clubs in the EIHL that would be delighted to gain 100 long term customers a year every year over 16 years but when you consider that Panthers total home crowd for last season was almost 150,000 then that 100 increase doesn’t seem quite so impressive, particularly when you consider that the difference between the “core” of 4,500 over a season and the total attendance is over 31,500.

So where are they going wrong? I don’t know. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that they are actually doing anything wrong and if they are what they can do about it? They’re obviously doing something very right to ensure the increases in crowd size year on year. It’s only gone down once in the last sixteen years and again there are nine other clubs that would give their right arm for that. It’s the conversion from occasional to regular that is the issue. You can get people to come but you’ve got to give something to make them want to come back and maybe, right now Panthers aren’t doing that.

The on ice product has to be a part of that transition. Or is it? Panthers are, shall we say, not very good at the moment, but to this untrained eye crowds appear to be up again. It’ll be interesting to see how many are there on Wednesday for the Braehead quarter-final but even that won’t give a true figure. There will be plenty of people not going to that because it’s not on their season ticket, it’s nearly Christmas and we’ve all only got a finite amount of money. For similar reasons you can’t use last night’s crowd either. There were at least three blocks full of kids from football teams or whatever to swell the numbers and I know this is something Panthers have done before. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, far from it, we need that new blood but Panthers need to understand that they’ve got to do something to make some people keep coming back.

I appreciate that this whole article could leave you with a certain feeling of disappointment that there are no real answers to all this and I know that the whole thing is very difficult to quantify and that the numbers I’ve used are distinctly unscientific. The whole thing resembles a One Show experiment. There is one thing, though, that it does show me at least. The potential is there and at the moment Panthers are only skating on the tip of the iceberg. They need to sit down and think about how they attract the people who only turn up once a year for the Christmas game against the Steelers (and they do exist, I was talking to some last year who were very proud of the fact) into week in week out Panthers fans. Over to you Gary et al, you’ve got a lot to think about.

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