by GB Hockey Future & Scott Sutherland
One of the main points by Tony Smith was that the import limit is directly linked to the increase/decrease of bums in seats. This has long been a go-to point in the import debate and we decided to take some time to look into the numbers and see just how big of an impact the increase in imports actually had on attendances league-wide.
The first thing we decided to look at was the attendance year-by-year. The public data available was on HockeyDB which was pulled from the old EIHL website while the 2019-20 data was pulled directly from the EIHL website.
At the top of the chart you will see the import maximum for each individual season. In blue are approximate attendance figures due to incomplete data. The Sheffield Steelers attendance numbers are unavailable from 2012/13 to 2014/15.
The next thing we did was take a look at the year-by-year increases (blue) and decreases (red) in year-by-year attendance by each team.
What can we learn from this?
2014/15 is the main season that stands out. Not only is it the season imports increased from 11 to 12 as part of a three year plan to increase imports to 14, it’s the season with the best league-wide growth. But were there any factors outside of import limits that may have influenced attendance?
Belfast had a huge spike in attendance in 2014/15, averaging 725 more tickets sold per home game than 2013/14. The 2013/14 Belfast Giants dominated the EIHL with a record of 43-6-3.
You could easily argue that the spike in Belfast Giants tickets came from the excitement generated from a dominant team.
Unfortunately the 2014/15 Giants did not live up to expectations and finished the season with a record of 27-19-6. That dip in on-ice success could explain the dramatic drop in ticket sales in 2015-16 despite the import numbers being bumped up once again to 13.
2014/15 was also a big year for the Cardiff Devils. Was this spike in attendance due to an increase in import numbers or was it due to the excitement of being acquired by a new ownership group? It would be difficult to argue it had anything to do with imports.
That excitement continued into 2016/17 when the Cardiff Devils moved full-time into Ice Arena Wales where the Devils now play at/near capacity for every home game.
They have also been one of the most successful on-ice teams in the EIHL since the new ownership group took over. Crediting import limits for that turn around would be an insult to the Cardiff Devils leadership group and the fanbase.
Fife Flyers also had their biggest recorded average attendance in 2014/15 when the import limit increased from 11 to 12 but this is a season in which HockeyDB is using an approximation due to incomplete data. As the years went on and the import limit increased, average attendance in Fife was been declining every year.
Glasgow was a club on the rise in the conference format of 2014, regularly finishing at the top of the Gardiner Conference. Their attendance peaked in 2014/15, the same season they finished just a point shy of the league title.
Unfortunately, Glasgow hasn’t been able to replicate that on-ice success and the attendance has dipped every year until the bounce back in 2019-20.
Sheffield only has five seasons of attendance to analyze and they seem to be the biggest outlier in the league. Their attendance has grown every year which could explain why Tony Smith has this view of imports. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to translate to the rest of the league.
I have no explanation as to why the attendance seemed to drop significantly in 2018/19. Steelers are the only club reporting a significant increase in attendance despite having their worst season since 2010.
If we compare the attendance from 2012-13 and 2019-20, every team outside of Coventry and Fife have increased their ticket sales anywhere between 126-1,519 tickets per game.
In that time, the league increased their imports from 11-14. If you look at these numbers and ONLY these numbers, Tony Smith is 100% correct that with increased imports came increased ticket sales.
But if we look at that league-wide boom in 2014-15 when the imports increased from 11 to 12 and compare that 12 import season to the attendance of the 14 import EIHL in 2019-20?
Four clubs have lost between 80 and 837 fans per game since the increases continued from 12 to 14 imports. The Sheffield numbers are not publicly available, but given the reported figures in the 5 seasons we know, we could assume their attendance is up as well.
The biggest riser was Cardiff but we should still credit that dramatic increase to the new ownership group as well as the new venue.
So is it fair to attribute ticket sales to imports? Maybe in 2015, it was.
But as we’ve collected more data over the seasons and the import limits have continued to increase, I think it’s proven that the import numbers do not directly increase ticket sales.
There are more important factors that you could attribute to ticket sales like on-ice performance, new ownership, new venues, the conference system, not to mention the quality of imports being signed and the general growth of the game in GB.
Where is the proof that import numbers increase ticket sales at such a volume that imports are a necessary evil to get by? If anything, this is proving that the sweet spot for imports may have been 12?
Tony Smith and the EIHL are not giving the successful teams or their fans enough credit.