Monday, September 15, 2008

This Little Light of Mine

Tim Wharnsby’s recent Globe and Mail article on the Leafs efforts to recruit new fans is an interesting read and it garnered a pretty interesting reaction from Old Guys in Blue and White.

Personally, I found it to be a bit of a tease. There's some fascinating information lurking in there, but unfortunately we only get a glimpse.

In 50 words or less: on the ticket side of things, the Leafs are laughing all the way to the bank; in terms of longitudinal brand positioning, things aren't so rosy. Or in plain language: the number of “die-hard” Leaf fans declined by 17% last year (making me question if the respondents actually understood what the term "die-hard" meant.)

Growing the Game

Given the decline in their hardcore base, the Leafs have come out and admitted that they need to do a better job in their relationship with Leaf fans including improving access, building a better quality product, providing exceptional service and rewarding fan loyalty.

MLSE looked at their data and concluded that the best way to do this is by working to grow the game of hockey at the grass roots level.

Not having access to the Leafs' research, I find it interesting that this is the conclusion MLSE came to.

Looking at external data, I don't see that that youth participation=fan. In fact, if one looks at youth participation rates by sport, there doesn't seem to be much, if any, correlation between actual participation and eventual fan support.

2007 Youth Sport Participation1

Bowling 43.5 million
Basketball 24.1
Baseball 14.0
Soccer, 13.8
Tennis 12.3
Darts 12.1
Volleyball 12.0
Softball 10.0
Football 9.2
Hockey 2.1

Bowling and soccer have much higher youth participation rates than hockey and neither sport has done much in terms of creating a major North American television following, professional league, or challenging the big 3 (NFL, NBA, MLB).

Basketball is the number two participation sport, but the NBA is having tougher attendance issues than the NHL and their TV numbers are also in trouble.

Football is undoubtedly the king of pro sports at the moment with franchises worth an unprecedented $1 billion each, yet youth participation rates for football exceed only those of hockey.

On the other side, I'm not sure how many fans of ultimate fighting and all of its spin offs grew up getting the tar kicked out of them down at the local cage/ring or whatever the heck you call that thing they fight in. Same goes for NASCAR – I don’t recall any stories of Southern kids with supped-up cars driving around all afternoon in circles…yet these sports have huge followings and are (strangely) popular.

I think it's great that the Leafs want to help grow minor hockey, I'm just not sure that it's going to translate into any sort of bump in their fan base.

Are the Leafs Missing Two Major Opportunities?

Participation in minor hockey across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) may be in decline, but there is one area where it is absolutely thriving: women's hockey.

According to the IIHF, in 2004 Canada had 62,640 registered female players and by 2007 the number had grown to 73,791.

The NCAA reports that there has been a 257% increase in participation in women's hockey over the last 10 years.

It could just be an omission, but I'd love to know what the Leafs are doing to build on this success story of women's increasing participation in this great sport.

Over 50% of Toronto's residents are foreign born and each year approximately 45% of all new immigrants to Canada settle in the GTA2. The good news is, the Leafs home market is still growing. What I'd love to know is what the Leafs are doing to reach out to new Canadians, especially the South-Asian community (13.5% of Toronto's population) and the Chinese (9.6% of Toronto's population).

It makes far more sense to me to go after these groups, which are growing rapidly, than it does to prop-up or support groups that are in decline, built on exclusionary pricing and are likely to yield a Habs or Sens fan as a die-hard Leaf fan.

It's always intriguing to get even the briefest insight into the thoughts and approaches of MLSE and I hope to see more of this stuff from Wharnsby.

So here's the other questions I'd love to have answers to...

Anselmi mentioned that the Leafs need to improve their web-presence and use of cell phone tech to reach out to younger fans. There's an interesting link at Kuklas Korner today regarding a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece about the new on-line toys that will be part of the NHL's online game coverage.

  • I wonder what the Leafs will be doing to promote these new stats and the new "in-game" on-line experience.
  • I've complained about the mess the NHL has made of the team web-sites before, but I'd really love to know just what the Leafs can do with their web-site, and what the NHL-NYR lawsuit means for the Leafs and for the League.
  • I'd also love an enterprising reporter or sports editor out there to look at what CBS has been able to do with their Final Four web-packages and see what lessons, if any, can be applied to the NHL.
I'm a bit of a research/ public polling junkie and as such, I would love to get my hands on the data that Anselmi mentioned to Wharnsby. It would be fascinating to know:

  1. Preference for the Leafs in the GTA compared to other competing entertainment options - NFL, CFL, Opera, Theatre, NBA, the club district, concerts, etc.
  2. How Leaf fan support compares to fan support for NHL franchises in other Canadian cities
  3. The Leafs are a national brand – where in Canada is their fan base growing, where is it weakening, where is it stagnant?
  4. What are the year over year trend rates for questions 1, 2 and 3? Does the data reveal any type of relationship between the trend-lines and on-ice performance?
  5. How do the Leafs resonate with non-traditional fan bases (women; visible minorities)
  6. Did those fans that self-identified as “die-hards” play minor hockey growing up? What are the other common demographic features of the “die-hard” group?
  7. Are there any commonalities that can be seen in the 17% who no longer classified themselves as die-hards?
(I don't mean to suggest that Wharnsby didn't ask any of these questions or request any of this data, but this stuff above is the real meat of the matter...)


  1. If MLSE is laughing all the way to the bank, why is the support level for the Maple Leafs even important?

    Presuming for a moment that the die-hard die-off is representative of other levels of engaged fan interest, you might argue that now the Leafs can satisfy 18% of those wishing to buy tickets instead of the current 16%, and there for your average man-in-the-street nothing has changed.

    If you can sell all the product you want (or perhaps more accurately, all the product you are capable of supplying) at will, it suggests that you are meeting your market's needs.

    In fact, should the Leafs be successful and bring home a Cup win, this will only make the product more desirable, increasing fan engagement, and further limiting said fan's access to the product.

  2. Great post, Michael. Professionally written as always. You're right about the Anselmi data, it would be very interesting to look at.

    You know what blew me away, though? The amount of kids who are bowling. Damn. Who knew.

  3. Anonymous9:04 am

    I think that grassroots development is important but really the biggest thing is getting those kids to the ACC to see games. If they targeted the groups you mentioned and used their pre-season games to introduce them to the game (something along the lines of the Ladies Night that some teams run) that would do more to get people involved in the club.

    All of the stats you mentioned would be great to be able to analyse. I would bet MLSE has that info but is sitting on it. Actually, they probably forgot to ask.

  4. Fascinating post. The numbers confirm something I've always suspected: there is little or no correlation between playing a game and being a spectator. I'm willing to bet that most people in an NFL stadium have never put on a pair of football pads. Similarly, the majority of people at an NHL game in Dallas have probably never played a serious game of hockey -- yet they show up night after night because the game has them hooked.

    Great to clarify this picture a bit further and chip away at the myth that the NHL's biggest problem is that relatively few kids play hockey.

  5. Anonymous2:17 pm

    Great article Michael...I'm wondering if you'd be interested in writing for, our published version of the magazine/rag hits the streets in 3 weeks, email me at

    PS I've added you to our Sports Directory under
    Blogroll - Maple Leafs

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