Pathetic attendance at World Juniors casts shadow over tournament


I always look forward World Juniors, and this year was no exception. After all, binging on youth hockey between Boxing Day and early January is as engrained in Canadian culture as Tim Hortons, Kraft Dinner, and mumbling phonetically to the portion of ‘O Canada’ frequently sung in French at sporting events. It’s my favourite tournament of the year.

2018’s edition didn’t disappoint, at least from an on-ice standpoint. As always, it featured high-flying future stars from around the globe, which this year, included Swedish wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin, American dynamo forwards Casey Middlestadt, Kailer Yamamoto, and Kiefer Bellows, and an absurdly deep and balanced Canadian squad in which every single player was a threat to score.

You know what was disappointing, though? The vast swaths of empty seats.

It wasn’t hard to notice Buffalo’s cavernous KeyBank Centre was less than half full throughout the tournament, even for marquee matchups featuring the host Americans and Canadians who were playing just of the border. Attendance per game hovered between 5 and 8 thousand (the arena seats 19,070) and there often weren’t enough fans to fill the lower bowl.

unsplash-logoCorey Hodgson

Overall, organizers sold over 200,000 tickets, which, on first glance, seems alright. However, that’s the lowest number of tickets sold for a tournament in North American since 2005, when it was held in much less-well populated towns of Grand Forks and Fargo, North Dakota. And the other difference? The arenas in those cities were smaller, packed, and rocking. The KeyBank Centre was a morgue in comparison.

If you take away the first outdoor game in World Juniors history that artificially inflated attendance numbers – 45,000 came out to New Era Field to see the United States take on Canada during a snowstorm – the stats are even more dire.

Ironically, IIHF President Rene Fasel blamed the weather – and specifically Canadians – for poor attendance, saying frequent post-Christmas snowfalls that gripped the borough on the eastern shore of Lake Erie made them unwilling to trek an hour or two to the games.

Do you recall plenty of well-lubricated Canadians with no shirts on as the temperature dropped into minus double-digits on a frosty Friday? I do.

There are many reasons the world’s best, most exciting, and highest profile under-20 hockey was such a flop this year, but the weather wasn’t one of them.

The location was the biggest problem. The IIHF has held the tournament in basically the same market three out of the last four years –Toronto and Montreal hosted in 2015 and 2017 – and they oversaturated the region. Even the most exciting events can become old hat if one’s exposed to them too frequently.

The ticketing system was a mess too.  Fans didn’t bite on the ticket packages which ranged between $690 and over $1500 and included all 31 games of the tournament.

Let’s be honest: the average Buffalonian or Torontonian has no interest in watching Switzerland play Belarus, and individual tickets that exceeded the $100-mark shut out working-class and casual fans. Besides, why would they drop thousands of dollars on something they’d already had two cracks to see in the past three years?

Factor in a stagnantly low Canadian dollar and the refusal of some Canadians to travel to the country run by a “very stable genius,” and you have seats that are dusted off rather than sat in.

I’m hopeful for the 2019 tournament, which Vancouver and Victoria will co-host. West coast fans haven’t had a World Juniors in over a decade, and they seem to be chomping at the bit for tix, as 60 per cent have already been snapped up.

Come next January, Gord Miller shouldn’t have to say, prior to the gold medal matchup, that “for the first time, the building is ALMOST full” like he had to as Canada and Sweden took the ice for to battle for hockey supremacy.

The IIHF did the World Juniors and the players a disservice this year, and in the future, they need to get on par with their own product, because the simple fact is this:

The World Juniors are just too good to be seen by so few.