Kings, Ducks struggle to fill seats in poor economy

The NHL announced surprisingly good attendance figures last week, saying teams had played to 91.3% of capacity through November. That’s despite sub-10,000 crowds in Phoenix and numbers in the low teens in Nashville, Atlanta, Colorado, Long Island and Carolina.

The local teams brought the number down, though the Kings’ average of 16,274 through their first 14 home games -- 89.9% of capacity at Staples Center -- was up about 1,200 from the same point last season.

The Ducks have averaged 14,889 fans through a league-high 18 home games. That’s down 1,872 per game from last season, to 86.7% of capacity at the Honda Center. However, in each of their last 15 seasons they drew better in the second half of the season than the first, a pattern that could play out again unless the Ducks’ struggles continue.

Executives of both teams said the economy has hurt them at the gate, but they see other factors in play.

The Kings’ strong start has helped add 2,000 new season-ticket customers and bring their season ticket base to 11,500. But not everyone is convinced they’re finally for real.

“I think we do have some fans that are still waiting and seeing a little bit out there,” said Chris McGowan, their senior vice president of business operations and chief marketing officer. “For us it’s picking up. We’re pretty pleased with our growth over this time last year. We’re selling more tickets. We’re up about 11% in paid tickets.

“We’re building it back. Our goal is to sell out every game and it’s only a matter of time before the crowds start to come back if things continue this way.”

McGowan said the Kings will offer discounts but won’t repeat last season’s ploy of selling all seats in January for $11.50. That desperate move alienated season-ticket holders who paid more -- and in advance -- for adjacent seats.

He also said ticket sales are only one indicator of the club’s well-being and cited increased web traffic, steady television ratings and getting the 2010 NHL entry draft as signs of strength. He and Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations, aggressively lobbied for the draft, to be held June 25-26 at Staples Center.

“We’ve been through some tough years, but I finally sense that there’s a lot of excitement about what’s going on,” McGowan said. “For the league to award us the entry draft, that’s a big deal. They obviously see something building here.”

The Ducks had only 7,000 season-ticket holders four years ago when Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise. They have about 11,475 now, with hopes of passing 11,500. Unlike most teams, the Ducks don’t give tickets away to inflate their attendance: NHL policy is to announce tickets distributed, not people in the building or tickets sold.

The Ducks’ on-ice success -- highlighted by their 2007 Stanley Cup championship -- has been a huge selling point. They’ve supplemented that with active marketing and fan outreach programs, ticket discounts, and incentives for season-ticket holders such as merchandise and meet-and-greet opportunities with players and management.

Tim Ryan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Ducks, said he hears from fans about the wobbly economy every day. Although they can’t go to many games they’re apparently still following the Ducks because the TV ratings are up.

“I think it’s fair to believe in the theory that more people are staying home, and coupled with Fox producing more games in high definition, coupled with the efforts that we’ve been able to do in the community, the TV ratings have gone up,” he said. “We’ll see if that holds after the first of the year.”

When the economy improves, those fans are likely to return to the arena.

“That’s our hope,” Ryan said. “Everybody who has ever gone to a live hockey game knows it’s more enjoyable than on television.” /sports Washington claims top spot Six straight wins help Capitals move to No. 1, beating out New Jersey in Helene Elliott’s NHL rankings.