NHL: Bandwagon Fans Keeping the League Afloat

Jason HackettAnalyst IMay 21, 2008

When your team is cruising towards a cup berth, you can expect the entire city and surrounding area to be buzzing. Just about everyone is supporting their team with jerseys, car flags, T-shirts, etc. 

The team is buzzing, the fans are buzzing, the city is electric ,and the owners are just beaming with padded wallets. What happens when the franchise isn't doing so well?

When you ask people in cities with not-so-good franchises, it is hard to find someone with intimate knowledge of the team, or people walking around with team jerseys—no one really cares about how well or bad the team is doing.

No one knows the position of the team in the standings. No one knows who is leading the team in goals or PIMs. However, there are still those die-hard fans that show up for every game, know everything there is to know about the team, and can hold their own in a discussion about what the team needs.

The problem is that there are very few of those die-hard fans. Not every city has fans like Toronto, where no matter how good or how bad the team is, the entire city is beaming with Maple Leaf envy.

Of course, the NHL will let everyone know that attendance is up from a couple years ago. Then again, if you think about it, with the parity of the league these days and teams still heavy in the hunt for a playoff spot until the final week, it is no doubt as to why the league has more fans in the seats.

Still, in many markets you find a plethora of empty seats, as, simply put, no one cares for a losing team!

When I was growing up in Calgary, I saw the rise and fall of sports in terms of attendance and revenue. Simply put, no matter how crazy things are now with the "Red Mile" in Calgary, the city's fans, just like any other, are only as good as the team's performance.

In the late '80s when the Flames were a Cup contender, including their '89 Cup-winning season, the city was burning with Flames fever. However, it couldn't last forever!

Players started to slowly leave, and the team became a perennial golfing team come the postseason. From 1995 to 2003, no one was cheering for the Flames. They became an afterthought, long-since removed from the late '80s.

The team was on the verge of leaving the city and no one seemed to care. There were no fans in the seats, and very few sales of merchandise.

The team owners set a deadline for a minimum amount of season tickets to be sold, one that was eventually pushed back a couple of weeks to meet the deadline. So the team wasn't going anywhere, at least not yet. There were still very little fans in the seats and the team wasn't doing much better in the standings.

No one in the city knew who anyone on the team was. For the die-hard fans, times were not great, but tickets were cheap and easy to get. It was very rare to see Flames fans in the city.

Enter the 2003-04 season, and it was time for the team to make a great run. Once the team was in the playoff hunt, the fans were still hesitant to purchase tickets or merchandise. They had seen something similar a few seasons earlier—agreat first half of the season, only to drop out of the playoffs by the end of the season.

Once it became apparent that the Flames would make the playoffs, out came the bandwagoneers, much to the despise of the die-hard fans who started to have problems trying to get tickets.

The owners, on the other hand, saw the Saddledome sell out every single game, and  merchandise was impossible to keep on shelves.

The entire playoffs saw the city buzzing for the Flames, and as they progressed further into the playoffs, Canada was behind their last hope of a Cup. The season ended with the Flames falling just short of hoisting their second cup championship.

The city was upset, annoyed and felt betrayed. Bandwagon fans were tossing jerseys, car flags, any sort of merchandise they could out onto the streets. No longer a Flames fan, just a regular Calgarian. Once again it became hard to find a Flames fan.

Every season since, once the Flames were in the playoff hunt, tickets became hard to find and merchandise was hard to keep on the shelves. Early first-round exits found Flames merchandise out on the street once again, and no one was  a Flames fan. At least not until the Flames were in the playoff hunt.

The only truly happy people were the owners of the Flames, padding their pocketbooks with every season that comes about.

I thought at first that it was just a Calgarian thing to do, but after talking with fans from other cities (Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa) it become rather apparent that it is a growing trend that has been around for ages. Something that I thought I would never see in a "Hockeyville" mecca like Montreal.

When I moved to Montreal two years ago, I was enthusiastic to see what the hockey season was like in Montreal. I was disappointed to see a very similar scene here as I did in Calgary for many years. Although I must admit that the Habs' fans are WAY more die-hard, much more knowledgeable, and possess a higher level of insanity.

With over a century of hockey history in Montreal, including the story that hockey started there, the people who grow up in Montreal grow up Bleu, Blanc and Rouge. From the late 19th century 'til today, Montreal has been crazy about it's the Canadiens.

Looking at the footage of the famous Richard Riot of the mid '50s and/or the first-round riot of 2008, it becomes quite apparent that the fans here are nuts!

The problem is that they also have the Bandwagon bug. I have listened to people at the beginning of the 2008 season state that Montreal doesn't deserve a team. That same person was sporting a Habs jersey come the playoffs.

The entire city was on the edge of its seat when Canadiens battled for first overall in the East, and were incensed when they clinched the conference title for the first time in 19 years. The Canadiens were front page news of every newspaper during the season, and especially the playoffs.

Once the playoffs started, reporters were asking Guy Carboneau what they would do when they win the Cup. Everyone was a Habs fan in the "Nation" of Quebec, from the oldest person alive in Quebec to the youngest.

Once the Canadiens exited from the playoffs, no one was a Habs fan anymore. Very few were sporting Habs paraphinalia, and no one was watching hockey anymore. Merchandise went on super sale (up to 80% off in some stores), but no one was buying anything. Other than me of course!

It is hard for any die-hard hockey fan to accept that bandwagon fans are what keep the teams a float, but it is something that we all have to live with. When you support your team through thick-and-thin, you often find yourself teased when your team isn't doing so well, and just a face in a crowd when the team is charging into the playoffs.

There is no reward other than watching your team hoist the Cup!

Nothing makes me angrier than watching a bandwagon fan pretending to be a die-hard fan. Especially when so many die-hard fans are shutout when it comes to trying to get playoff tickets.

The bottom line is that you won't get many sponsors if there are no bums in the seats for every home game. Bandwagon fans bring a ton of money into the team and create an atmosphere that you just don't find during bad seasons.

Fans who support the team through thick-and-thin get the team through the hard times, but the "I only cheer for a winning team" fans are the ticket to bringing in better players, better sponsors, and upgrading arenas.

So as much as it pains me to say, "Long Live the Bandwagon fans!" If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't have a team!


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