By Budd Bailey

It’s a little difficult to keep track of the National Lacrosse League’s attendance figures these days. The league changed statistical services since its last game in the spring of 2020. While the old company included attendance in its updated numbers package during the season, the new company either has put the figures in a tough spot to find or is not publishing them on the NLL’s website.

That leaves it up to industrious reporters to do the math on what’s happening so far in the young season in this department. I volunteered to get off the couch to do some figuring; along the way, I found that a guy on Wikipedia had beaten me to it. I’m happy to say our numbers matched. Since everyone has Christmas weekend off, it’s a good spot for a peek.

Let’s start the discussion by pointing out that we’ve only had three weeks of the season, and teams have played either one or two home games. Attendance traditionally has gone up as the season has gone on, so “below-average” numbers were to be expected. The Bandits, for example, have had some of their smallest crowds in recent years turn up for December games.

There’s also the whole Covid-19 issue to think about. Rules about fan attendance in buildings must vary from city to city, but it doesn’t help when franchises aren’t allowed to admit their all of their fans into the building because of vaccination rules. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that indoor lacrosse fans aren’t as affluent as their NHL, NBA or NFL counterparts, and therefore less likely to get their shots. (Of course, if unvaccinated fans were allowed into all buildings, attendance might take a bigger hit. Sometimes, you can’t win.)

Still, the numbers so far have to give some in the league office reason for concern on a variety of levels. Let’s look at average attendance by team so far:

Team – Avg.
Calgary – 9,361
Saskatchewan – 9,112
Colorado – 8,730
Buffalo – 7,395
Halifax – 6,956
Toronto – 6,534
Vancouver – 6,083
San Diego – 5,633
Fort Worth (Panther City) – 5,448
Georgia – 5,127
Albany – 4,885
Rochester – 4,311
Philadelphia – 3,913
New York – 3,850
Average – 5,975

I’m under the assumption that the numbers reflect tickets distributed, and not actual people in the stands. I’ve heard stories that the Bandits had a couple of thousand no-shows, if that’s the right word, for the opener. I also watched parts of the Panther City games on television, and there were a ton of empty seats, especially in the second home game – not a good sign for a team playing its first two home games in history.

A couple of other teams made home debuts in new locations this month. The Toronto Rock is now playing in Hamilton, and that team drew 8,043 and 5,024 in its first two games. The novelty looks like it wore off quickly. Albany, freshly arrived from Connecticut, attracted 4,885 in its home opener.

Add it all together, and the league has dropped just below 6,000 in average attendance for its first few games. The average was 8,035 in 2019-20 before play was stopped in March because of Covid-19, and it was 9,596 in the full season of 2018-19. There’s one other number that can’t be seen here, but is worth noticing. There has not been a 10,000-plus crowd at an NLL game this season – less than three years after almost averaging that number.  (The expansion teams such as New York, Rochester and San Diego essentially have been pulling the average figure down in the past few years.)

The teams that usually draw the biggest crowds among league members are still doing so. Either Calgary, Saskatchewan, Buffalo or Colorado have led the league in attendance in every season since 2006, and they were the top four teams in 2019-20. You see them filling the first four spots this season as well. However, every team in the league except San Diego is down in attendance this season from 2019-20. (The Seals went from 4,829 to 5,633,) Maybe the most troubling number comes in Philadelphia, which averaged 8,054 two seasons ago but is now attracting less than half that so far.

The NLL really finds itself in uncharted territory in some ways. It was forced to skip the 2020-21 season because of the virus, while the other sports could continue to play – even if fans weren’t allowed to be in the building at times because of Covid-19 regulations.  It was easy for hockey fans to keep up with the Sabres (if they really wanted to do so) since the games were on TV and major media outlets were still reporting on their games and actions. In contract, the Bandits were more or less dark by necessity.

We can write off the drop in attendance as a short-term loss, due mostly to the virus. Even so, there has to be some fear that a percentage of the fans have gotten out of the habit of going to games, and that it will be tough to lure them back. And those fears must have grown as the Omicron variant has been raging in the last couple of weeks throughout North America. Normal seems a ways away.

No, it’s not time to panic. The numbers will improve as the season goes along if the situation with the virus doesn’t grow worse, causing even tighter restrictions. But owners certainly have good reason to be nervous as the NLL heads into the New Year.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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