Curiosity about the average attendance for European Hockey Leagues led me to take a deeper look. I researched the average attendance in major European hockey leagues over the last decade. Also, a more in-depth look at the average attendance for this current season.
The Chosen Leagues
I chose six leading hockey leagues in Europe to compare their average attendances since the 2008-09 season. They are the best European leagues from the leading hockey countries.
The leagues are as follows, the KHL, an international league with the headquarters in Moscow. Then the domestic leagues of Sweden, Finland and Switzerland, which were renamed recently. The Elitserien of Sweden is now known as the SHL. SM-Liiga is simply the Liiga, the leading league of Finland. And finally, the NLA or National League A from Switzerland which got the new abbreviation NL. I also look at the Czech-extra league or Tipsport Extraliga Ledního Hokeje, aka, TELH.
All of the leagues mentioned above, except the KHL, are the founding leagues of the Champions Hockey League (CHL).
The source of attendance data is from the official websites of respective leagues or their official publications like a season review. I compare only the average attendance of the regular season. The CHL’s numbers include playoff results because of a speciality of the competition.
The Swiss NL and the KHL make a Significant Progress
The graph below shows us the average attendance of the leagues since the 2008-09 season. That season was the inaugural one for the KHL. You can see two groups of leagues in the below graph. The leading group consists of the SHL, NL & the DEL. These leagues were the most attended leagues that season in Europe. The KHL’s average attendance was much lower at that time, but a bit higher than both the TELH & the Liiga.
All leagues have folllowed their own path to success. The biggest progress has been made by the KHL, mainly due to the strict rules regarding arena capacity. A few clubs have got newer and bigger arenas, as teams with bigger venues joined, for example, Jokerit, Slovan, Sochi, Lev Prague in the past. That positive development will go on because other new venues have been under construction and we can expect some European or Asian teams with big arenas to join the league.
The NL has the highest attendance league in Europe, the main reason is a great attendance by SC Bern. The league has only 12 sides with modern venues, which is an advantage in the attendance’s calculation, but it is only a matter of time when the KHL overtakes the NL.
The DEL, SHL and Liiga Losing Fans
There are ups and downs in both the SHL and DEL. Both leagues expanded but ended up with lower average attendance. That is to be expected when a club with a small arena comes to a league. A
The TELH has had one good attendance season replaced by a poorer one. Even though the league has enjoyed marginal progress, due to Sparta Prague playing at the big O2 Arena (17,383), the gain ends there. The league can not progress much more because the Czech Republic has a limited amount of big multifunctional venues. I can only see HC Kometa Brno build a new arena with at least 10,000 seats.
The Liiga is also experiencing tough times. The average attendance started to drop in the last season when Jokerit was still a part of the league. They also brought in a replacement team after Jokerit’s departure to the KHL. A few Liiga teams could get new venues soon, that fact should boost the attendance.
European Hockey; New Year, New Attendance Growth
Now I look at the average attendances of this season. The chosen leagues have around ten remaining games in the 2018-19 regular season. With the traditional international break in February, it allows us to look at their average attendance just a few rounds before their playoff campaigns.
The average attendance of all selected leagues, except for the SHL, has grown after the new year if comparing to the end of December 2018.
The NL is taking their average attendance up to the 7,000 level. No surprise really, Swiss people love their national league. The KHL is having their second best-attended regular season ever and the numbers could get even better if Avangard Omsk played at their home arena with 10,000 seats instead of a much smaller arena in the city of Balashikha.
The German DEL is the third and last league with an average attendance of over 6,000 spectators per game.
While the SHL´s average attendance has struggled. The SHL used to have an average attendance of over 6,000 fans per game in the past, now it is only around 5,700 spectators.
The Czech TELH is having their standard season and the Liiga’s average attendance is the worst of all major European hockey leagues. Of course, if we do not count the CHL.
The Champions Hockey League and Low Standards for a Venue
The biggest problem of the Champions Hockey League is a lack of interest among fans and the low infrastructure standards. There are CHL clubs playing at secondary venues, with a much lower capacity compared to their primary arena. Two European hockey giants, Frölunda HC & Eisbären Berlin are the most prominent teams that come to mind.
Furthermore, Frölunda HC played the 2017 CHL Final at Frolundaborgs Isstadion instead of the Scandinavium, even though the opponent Sparta Prague would guarantee at least 15,000 attendees at the O2 Arena. This season could be a very similar situation when the CHL Final was proposed at Frolundaborgs Isstadion. After all, the Final was played at the Scandinavium in front of 12,000 fans.
A Proposed Solution for the Champions Hockey League
I would recommend for the CHL to implement a rule of minimal capacity for a venue. Nowadays, no hockey game of that status should be played in an arena with a capacity lower than 5 to 6,000 seats. Unfortunately, that is a problem, because many clubs, especially those from smaller leagues, towns or countries have very small venues. As a result, you have a league with a venue of 17,000 seats (SC Bern) and an arena with only 3,000 seats (Salzburg, Grodno, Banská Bystrica). This disparity needs to be fixed to allow for larger crowds.
The UEFA is very strict with this issue. If your football club does not meet the criteria, the club cannot play the qualification of the UEFA competitions at your home field. The KHL also has a minimal requirement for capacity, it is 5,500 seats now and all future constructed venues must have at least 12,000 seats. The Euroleague Basketball is even tougher with a minimum 10,000 seat arena capacity rule. It would be a positive move for the CHL, who should approve a rule to increase the minimum arena seating requirement for at least 8 or 9,000 seats. Otherwise, no progress will be seen.
As we can see in the graph, despite the CHL Final at Scandinavium, the CHL average attendance of the 2018-19 season is lower than the previous campaign. In many cases, it is a consequence for the clubs with smaller venue capacities. It is a risky policy of the CHL Board, who approved that clubs only qualify based on sporting merits regardless of their arena’s capability. The smarter policy would be to select a few teams with a big venue, and an interest to develop the CHL. Grant those teams a long-term licence. Actually, the CHL did it in the early years but abandoned it afterwards. The long-term licence rule has been positively working for the Euroleague Basketball. Moreover, the CHL copied that rule from them.
Domestic Leagues Are More Attractive Than the Champions Hockey League
Finally, I look at the average attendance of a club in the CHL and its domestic league this season. Only teams participating at the 2018-19 CHL season, the teams from Switzerland, Finland, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany, are taken into account.
There is a massive difference between the average attendance of a club in the CHL and its domestic competition. That massive gap is a red alarm for the CHL management to somehow fix the situation.
Clubs from leading leagues should be compared with other sports events or leagues in attendance figures as well. Moreover, an international competition, as the most prestigious event of the sport should have a higher attendance than a domestic league. This, unfortunately, does not apply to the Champions Hockey League. Will it ever change? Only the next couple of years or even the next decade will tell us the full story.
Featured Image Credit: (Photo by SC Bern/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)