Columbus sports fans celebrate bailed-out hockey team’s success with citywide apathy

It’s the two-and-a-halfth year anniversary, more or less, of the bailout plan for the Columbus Blue Jackets that has left county taxpayers covering annual losses on the team’s arena, enabling the team to stop losing money. And that’s apparently enough of an excuse for the Columbus Dispatch to check out how excited hockey fans are at having a money-making franchise to root for, and one that is finally poised to actually make the playoffs to boot:

The Blue Jackets are in fourth place in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, but they are 29th in a 30-team league in attendance, drawing 14,347 per game to Nationwide Arena, which has been filled to its 18,144-seat capacity only four times in 36 games this season.

Okay, not so hot. But things are at least improving slowly on the attendance front, right?

Although the Blue Jackets have seen a 23 percent bump in season-ticket sales over the past year — from fewer than 7,000 season-ticket equivalents early last season to 8,600 as of this week — attendance actually has dipped from last season’s 14,564 average.

Hmm. Maybe fans are starting slowly, getting their feet wet by watching more on TV?

Further, according to a recent report in Sports Business Journal, the Blue Jackets rank 29th in the NHL in TV viewership. According to sources, the Jackets attract an average of 6,000 households per broadcast on Fox Sports Ohio, down from 9,000 last season.

Okay, but once the team capitalizes on its newfound flushness and offers cheaper tickets, things will improve, right?

The Blue Jackets don’t appear overly concerned, either. Early this season, there were some thin crowds: eight games with fewer than 12,000 fans, including two with fewer than 10,000. Still, they’re raising season-ticket prices in almost every section of the building for next season.

Sigh.

The only silver lining is that sports attendance usually lags behind on-field (or on-ice) success by a year, since fans only wake up and decide to start buying tickets after they’ve seen a successful playoff run. Still, if the main thing Columbus bought with its bailout money is civic pride in its hockey team, residents aren’t exactly busting out with it.

But, hey, sunk costs and all, and at least local taxpayers can sit back and rest assured that they won’t have to spend anything more on the Blue Jackets from here on

The practical impact of low gambling and the resulting state tax revenue shortfall to Columbus and Franklin County residents is that a quarter of the $10.3 million received by Columbus that is dedicated to the arena lease is just $2.6 million — not enough money to cover the $3.3 million required to cover the bond payment schedule for 2013… According to [Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government] projections, if the current 23% shortfall happens in every year of the lease, the total added costs will be $97 million and a bond payment schedule that extends an additional 7 years – to 2046. The only thing that can prevent such a shortfall: we need more gamblers willing to belly up to the poker table and bet their retirement on a three-of-a-kind.

Yep, this is working out just great. Happy baseball season, everybody!


17 comments on “Columbus sports fans celebrate bailed-out hockey team’s success with citywide apathy

  1. Okay, I’ll bite: Seattle wouldn’t be any better, and I used to work for some hockey teams in the Seattle area. The sport just isn’t that big a deal there to begin with, KeyArena’s too small to even fit 10,000 for a hockey game and the proposed arena isn’t a slam dunk (oops, wrong metaphor) with a new mayor and a grandstanding socialist city councilor now in place. Quebec is the better pick by far if you want locals who actually care about the sport.

    Have to admit I’m not sure why the NHL chose Columbus in the first place. The only sport people THERE care about is Buckeye football. It doesn’t make sense to expand your league for expansion’s sake, but it’s hard to turn down those entry fees.

  2. Columbus always struck me as an odd choice for expansion (their team name has yet to win me over as well).

    What’s even more surprising about their attendance and viewing numbers is that they switched to the Eastern Conference this season. More home games against east teams, fewer trips out west for those late night games that inconvenienced fans watching on TV. This was the ideal scenario the team wanted since their inception.

    If anything, their numbers should be up across the board this year.

  3. Columbus is fine for a hockey market but they need to win a little bit. For a team that has only seen the playoffs once in their history the fans are loyal. Attendance is actually up 10% from last year when you consider the seasonality of hockey (biggest months are March and April) so when you compared last years full year numbers it looks like they are down. March is averaging 15,968 while March 2013 average 14,481. April of 2013 was 17,422….which makes 2013 look bigger than 2014.

    10 years ago Columbus out drew Boston, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh and 12 other teams. They are fine if they can win a bit.

    Great to see people are gambling less.

  4. I think what sold the NHL on Columbus at the time was the fact that there was no other pro sports team that it would be competing with. I don’t know if I’d consider Buckeye Football/Basketball competition for hockey dollars. They are two very different fan bases imo.

    I think the jackets need to make more of an effort to reach out to the entire state of Ohio and not just the city of Columbus. A re-branding to the Ohio Blue Jackets, maybe? Put the AHL farm team in Cincinnati (Cleveland has Colorado’s already). get the state interested.

  5. Meh…blog kind of overlooks a lot. Leaves out other information like the 2.5% income tax the city collects from not only Columbus hockey players, but all visiting hockey players and visiting entertainers who perform at the arena. With a $70 million payroll for CBJ alone, 2.5% can make up a lot.

    Also failed to mention the All-Star Game. Carolina reported they had $11.4 million in direct visitor spending in Raleigh during 2012 ASG. Plus, it puts Columbus on an international stage with an opportunity to showcase our fine city. Hard to buy that kind of advertising which can land future conventions and lure visitors to the city. Imagine what a playoff run could bring?

    Speaking of visitors, I wonder how much the city generates when Pens, Leafs, Sabres, Red Wings, etc. fans come in to town for games? And there they are in the Arena District! A previous eyesore of parking lots and run down state pen. Now it has condos, new hotels and restaurants = jobs & income taxes & property taxes. Downtown was a ghost town after 5pm before 2000. Now it’s a destination!

  6. It would seem that living in a downtown area–especially one with a major university and lots of attendant cultural offerings nearby–is a trend across the United States. I find it a bit hard to imagine people making major lifestyle decisions like where to live just because of a hockey team that plays 40 times a year. Trying to pin down “spending” on one event is a bit of a waste of time. Cities that have something to offer 365 days a year are the ones that are winning in today’s market.

    Columbus is on the map. It is the home of one of the best research universities in the United States. I’m not quite sure what the Blue Jackets have done to add to that.

  7. Hey IAmAmused, the information you mention is not relevant to the measuring sticks of attendance and TV viewership, which are key indicators for the health of a franchise. These indicators are magnified when a team is subsidized or bailed-out. The stuff that you feel is “left out” like tax programs and an All-Star Game and The $64M payroll? Doesn’t matter, the people of Columbus don’t care enough to attend or watch on TV.

    Reliance on out-of-town fans doesn’t seem to be helping their attendance one bit, and if they were helping, then they’re masking a situation that is actually worse.

  8. As GDub mentioned, Columbus and many cities like it are having revitalized downtowns for alot of reasons, few of which involve professional sports teams. At best professional sports teams are an added entertainment option in an urban area that also bolsters sports bars/restaurant districts, at worst a huge boondoggle that suck needed entertainment and hospitality dollars that could be used more effectively elsewhere.

  9. Keep shoveling it over sheep, we know you can’t live without it.
    BTW what’s Bahhh in French (or Québécois)?

  10. “We should pay the team to play here because then we can earn income tax on the player’s salaries”.

    Ok. Why not pay all the teams to move to Ohio then?
    Once again with feeling, income taxes, property taxes and the like are not “windfall profit” for cities/states. These revenues are the funds the cities and states use to function. If you cannot rationalize kicking back the income tax that garbage collection workers pay, why would you do so to millionaire athletes and their billionaire bosses?

    BTW, 2.5% of $64m (assuming both the Jackets and all their visitors spend to the 2013-14 cap) does add up… to $1.6m… less than half the bond payment.

    Simple math.

  11. I do think that attendance will increase next year with a playoff run. Columbus has one of the best youth and adult rec hockey programs in the US, and one of the nicest arenas in the league. Fans in Columbus are just a little gun shy about spending money on a franchise that has been mismanaged for 15 years. They have made the playoffs once in their existence (getting swept) and have been at rock bottom in the standings most years. You also can’t expect one year in the eastern conference to undo 15 years of watching away games at 10pm on a work/school night. Columbus is a growing market with serious potential for success. Fans will return and stay for the long haul if management proves they are in it to win.

  12. @GuiltyBystander

    Actually, the NHL chose Oklahoma City to be the expansion city. Thunder owner Clay Bennett was going to be the owner and the team was going to be named the Oklahoma Redbirds or something like that. At the last second, Nationwide or whoever the original naming rights winner was came in with a last second, big money pitch and the NHL decided to switch from OKC to Columbus.

    Now, as to why the NHL chose Columbus as the runner up city? I don’t know other than they were looking for a market that didn’t have any other pro sports franchises. But based on that criteria, you would think that they would’ve chosen Vegas as sin city has always been on the NHL radar and at the time, they were still gung ho about sun belt expansion as Nashville and Atlanta were 2 of the 4 expansion choices along with Minnesota and Columbus.

  13. With all due respect to Columbus (or Phx) fans, saying “fans will show up when they win” isn’t good enough.

    If a market is supportable, fans will show up any time. More will come when the team is doing well, but the franchise will not be on life support when it’s fortunes turn downward.

    If you want your teams, you need to spend your money on them all the time… not just when the bandwagon comes rolling by.

  14. Maybe if the dispatch would stop putting OSU football on the front of the sports page 365 and put the Jackets there during the hockey season and not bury them near the end of the sports page. Maybe if the local news coverage of the team were more than an oh by the way the Jackets played tonight. They would garner a lager fan base. Columbus has other teams than OSU

  15. I’m pretty sure that a major part of the reason that Columbus ended up with an NHL franchise was due to the impressive support for the minor league team, the Chill. It was a pretty hot ticket in the mid 90s by my recollection.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbus_Chill
    Beginning in January 1992, the Chill sold out 83 straight games – more than tripling the previous minor-league hockey mark. It was a standard that would last for nearly a decade. The Chill would sell out more than 80 percent of their games during their eight-year history in the 5,600-seat Ohio State Fairgrounds Expo Coliseum, which opened in 1918 and was the oldest building to house a pro team.

  16. Columbus does have teams other than OSU… however, the paper is in the business of selling copies to the paying public (apparently unlike the Jackets, who get paid to play in the arena built for them). It is not a public service.

    If the Jackets were at all popular and the paper thought they could sell more copies by putting them on the front page, they would do it. The fact that they are on the back page (if mentioned at all) is evidence of their lack of popularity, not the cause of it.

    6,000 people watching on TV. Those are Glendale like numbers…

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