Through the 1970s and much of the 1980s, attendance figures for New York Rangers' games at Madison Square Garden were predictable: always around 17,500, a near-capacity crowd.
Every seat wasn't always sold and occupied, but most were. And the money was in the bank, often well in advance, earning interest. Then, as now, the National Hockey League was a business based on gate receipts, and business was good.
In recent seasons, including this one, attendance figures at the Garden have not always been so healthy. Although 17,542 attended the home opener with Boston in early October, only 13,269 came for a game against Calgary in early November and over the last several years average attendance has fallen from 17,402 in 1984-85 to 15,964 last season.
The Rangers aren't the only NHL team suffering a falloff in attendance. Last season, as the nation's recession deepened, the league's regular-season attendance dropped by nearly a quarter-million customers, from 12.58 million in 1989-90 to 12.34 million in 1990-91, a drop of about 2 percent. Through October of this year, attendance has fallen another 1 percent.
"When businesses are going through tough times and people are going through tough times, the entertainment dollar suffers," said John Ziegler, president of the NHL. The box-office problems seem worst in the Northeast, where the recession has been most persistent. The New York Islanders are down 25 percent, from an average of 11,789 at this time last season to 9,212 so far this year.
The Hartford Whalers' average for the first quarter of the current season is 10,925, compared with 12,014 at the same time last season. The New Jersey Devils won't provide cumulative figures or comparisons. But they have announced crowds of 11,506, 10,438, 11,551, 11,813, and 10,237 in a building that seats 19,040.
Even the Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are down about 150 fans a game after increasing by $5 the price of every ticket.
Dave Andrews, executive vice president of the Whalers, said that revenues are down substantially in Hartford and that attendance continues to drop in that arena while ticket prices remained the same.
"Overall, we are concerned," he said. "If concern is pessimism, that's a way to look at it. Hockey tickets are not a necessity of life. They are a passion."
Andrews said that two-thirds of the NHL teams made money in 1989-90, the last season for which balance sheets are available. The Whalers don't expect to be profitable this season. "We could lose as much as $5 million, cash," he said.
Hockey teams are trying to adjust to this changing marketplace. For instance, the Rangers are offering partial-season ticket plans for fans who cannot afford all 40 games. They are advertising extensively. They are selling some tickets at a discount.
The Rangers say they aren't worried about selling the $65 seats near the ice or about filling the new high-level suites for the corporate clients who write them off on the expense account.
"We're concerned more with some of the lower-priced seats skewed toward the individual game buyers who reach down into their own pocket," said Kevin Kennedy, director of marketing for the Rangers, whose cheapest seats go for $16.
"The number of people capable of buying a full subscription is a decreasing number," he said. "You will see, this season, an overall slippage or reduction in total attendance in sports and in entertainment, period."
While that may be so, hockey is unusual among the major sports in that so much of its revenue comes from gate receipts. In fact, this year the NHL suffered a major blow when it signed a $5.5 million television contract with SportsChannel America. Three years ago, the league's television contract brought in more than three times that amount. But television may be causing problems for hockey in other ways.
While the other major team sports maintain a strong presence through over-the-air and major cable networks, in many cities hockey appears almost entirely on cable networks and sometimes on cable channels that charge a premium beyond the basic cable fee.
Hockey teams are also leading the major sports in the drift toward pay-per-view telecasting, an even more expensive form of cable. With pay-per-view, a household pays extra on its cable bill -- usually $10 or more -- for a single telecast.
The Minnesota North Stars and the Detroit Red Wings are selling a few games via pay-per-view this season. While this marketing technique can generate quick profits on important games that are in demand, it also eliminates the casual fan who might be browsing through channels and does little to expand the base of fans for the sport.