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Is Sunbelt Hockey Working? Part I

July 20, 2010
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I had originally intended to make this a single post, but I feared that the length and density of it would dissuade some from reading it. So instead I have opted to make it into a three-part series spread over the next several days. If you’d like to read the full post now, please click here. My only request is that all feedback is placed within the comments section on either this post or the others in this series.

As I mentioned in my primer, I’ve heard for years that hockey in the Sunbelt just isn’t working. That although the teams have had moments of high fan interest, for the most part, they suffer from public apathy. While I’ll acknowledge that the Sunbelt teams lack a traditionally solid fan base comparatively to their northern counterparts, it has just always seemed to me that the southern teams based their entire future on assembling a group of loyal supporters from the ground up.

If the Sunbelt teams were nothing more than an attempt by Bettman and Co. to increase visibility for the game in the States, then one must then assume that the best way to measure its success is through the youth. While the theory put into practice at the start of franchises like the Tampa Bay Lightning was to attract snowbirds, anyone examining the long term success of a southern team must acknowledge that unless a core of supporters emerges the business will no longer be a fruitful venture.

Well how does one build a base?

Success? Maybe, but I find this answer at best, weak. If you have a fan base that only comes out in support of a successful team, then when that franchise hits the inevitable down period in terms of winning percentage, no one will be there to watch a losing franchise. If this seems like an inaccurate argument look at southern franchises that had early success, but now spend their time in the lower end of the standings.

The answer to the question is simple, it’s youth.

Think about it hockey fans. While there will always be outliers, how many of you fell in love with the game via a team in your youth? How many of you have grown up with the game?

I know that as a child living in “The Region” during the early nineties,  it was the Chicago Blackhawks that got me hooked on the sport.

So in an attempt to see if Sunbelt hockey is panning out I think instead of checking attendance numbers or looking at profit margins, we should see if the youth in the south are playing the game.

Let’s first look at USA Hockey registration numbers.

The following numbers are for all players male, female, adult, youth. While it would have been better to just have youth numbers, the USA Hockey site only supplied me with total registrants, adult registrants and girl’s/women’s registrants. Since this is the case, it would have been too difficult to get exact numbers on the women’s side of things. Additionally, after a brief glance over of the information, it was apparent that the vast majority of those registered with USA Hockey are youth. Therefore, while these numbers cannot be 100% accurate in terms of only youth players, it will give us a very good indication of the amount of children playing the game.

I was unable to locate any numbers earlier than 2003-04, but given the short 6 year window of time, the numbers are pretty telling. It was most fortunate that USA Hockey divides up the country into districts, which only makes this easier to process the information for the purposes stated above.

For the most part changes within enrollment varied about 1% or less from year to year. The lockout year in the NHL seemed to have a residual effect on overall registrant numbers for the year following the lockout. For most regions, a rebound was seen from 2005-06 to 2006-07.

As I began going through the numbers, I started to notice something strange. The districts that were making large jumps in enrollment on a somewhat regular basis were the Rocky Mountain, the Pacific and the Southeast. Meanwhile, areas like Michigan and Massachusetts were losing players at a regular rate.

To get a better idea of the overall changes for each district, I calculated the average annual change in percentage given the years I had data for (2003-04 through 2008-09). The results were actually shocking.

Out of all the districts, The Pacific led with an average increase of 2.95%. This was followed closely by The Southeast and Rocky Mountain districts which averaged annual growths of 2.51% and 2.19% respectively. While there was a decrease in the Rocky Mountain district’s numbers from 2007-08 to 2008-09, I believe this can be explained by a realignment which removed a few states from the district. For all three regions, their yearly growth was much higher than the national average.

On the other side of this coin, the areas that averaged the highest losses in enrollment were the Michigan, Massachusetts and New England districts. While Michigan’s decline could be attributed to a poor economy in recent years, Massachusetts and New England remain head scratchers.

What these numbers are saying is simple, in states like Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, the game is growing. Which is interesting considering all of these states have since gained NHL franchises since the “Sunbelt Era” began.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. brent permalink
    July 20, 2010 10:13 am

    I’m guessing you may get to this in one of the later posts but Dallas seems to have grasped the idea that you are talking about here that grabbing the youth and making them lifelong fans is the way to build a franchise. Dallas aggressively went after the youth when the moved to texas building starts centers all around the metropolitan area. they took a whole region that had like 3-4 total rinks and now has somewhere around 25. they partnered with local school districts to get local high schools to use the Stars facilities and have their own high school hockey teams

  2. July 20, 2010 10:45 am

    You’re spot on with the youth idea. That’s how a fella like me, raised in St. Louis, becomes a Lightning fan. The game has to appeal to the youth in order to succeed. Great start to the series.

  3. SierraAZ permalink
    July 22, 2010 2:47 pm

    For a deeper look at the registration numbers, the sport has doubled in popularity over the last 20 years. In 1989 it was 2M registered players, last year it was 4+M players. There’s a deeper breakdown here: http://hfboards.com/showthread.php?p=25774818.

    A few other points to consider:
    1) While some of this is due to population shift south, that naturally spreads the sport generation to generation. The opposite is happening in Canada due to immigration of non-hockey playing cultures. Soccer is becoming the #1 sport there, with entire youth hockey leagues folding, some that held 12,000 kids back in their system in the 80s.

    2) The talent level of the kids playing in the sunbelt isn’t diluted either. On the last World Junior team, you had two kids from Missouri, one from Oklahoma and one from Las Vegas. The sport is spreading nationally, and the national teams are just starting to see the impact of elite players coming from non-traditional markets.

    3) Winning helps, but I live in Phoenix (season ticket holder) and we haven’t won anything since the team moved here. But we had two rinks in town then, one of them barely skateable, and we’re up to 14+ sheets of ice running 24/7 all year round now.

    Just like baseball — America’s pasttime — has been embraced and dominated by Latin American players now, the face of hockey is changing as well.

  4. July 24, 2010 12:31 pm

    I can attest that we have a small but strong youth hockey community here in Charleston, SC. There are only three sheets in the whole Charleston metro area (600,000+ residents), but ice time is hard to come by.

    As for me, I’m a transplant who always loved hockey but didn’t start playing until this year when I finally got into roller hockey on the single rink in town.

    We have fairly consistent support for our ECHL Stingrays, but without the support of local municipalities building more rinks (ice or inline), there will only be marginal growth of youth hockey here. It’s a hard sell in SC, especially to elected officials in this “always cut taxes” state.

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