On Monday night, the Leafs played a game against an American team for the first time since Game 5 against the Blue Jackets in 2020. It was an exciting affair where they dominated from start to finish and included Auston Matthews’ return, but they were undone in overtime by the Rangers’ star, Artemi Panarin.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of that game is the emergence of a new trend to begin this season: the Leafs have yet to record a sellout at Scotiabank Arena.
18,098 at Scotiabank Arena tonight. Maple Leafs yet to sell out a game this season.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) October 19, 2021
To put into perspective, the percentage of tickets sold for the first three games were 98.3% capacity for their season opener, 96.8% for Saturday’s game, and 96.2% for their most recent contest. By comparison, the majority of American teams have been posting strong attendance numbers while every other Canadian team (with the lone exception being the Canadiens) has not had a sellout crowd.
At first glance, this drop in attendance could be the result of a few key factors.
There is the obvious one of the COVID-19 pandemic still raging on and there are several fans who remain hesitant to return to large indoor gatherings. Although case numbers have seen a decline in recent weeks with the vaccine rollout still going strong, I would not blame people for wanting to delay their return to Scotiabank Arena until 2022. While it’s much easier for spectators to justify visiting outdoor venues like the Rogers Centre and BMO Field, an indoor arena is a different beast entirely, especially considering fans are required to have a mask on for the better part of three hours. And then there are those who have not gotten their vaccines either by choice or by circumstance, who have not be able to attend at a result.
Ticket prices could also be playing a role in the lack of a sellout since it appears that the pandemic has not softened MLSE to lower the cost of admission. For the season opener, the cheapest seat available (in the back row of the 300s) on Ticketmaster was $132 CDN (!!!). High ticket prices have been a longstanding issue for both the Leafs and the NHL in general, yet it has not stopped fans from paying a pretty penny to watch their favourite team break their hearts in person. This is evident by the Leafs finishing the 2019-20 campaign at 102.6% capacity on average, good enough for fourth in the NHL per ESPN.
Another possibility for the lowered attendance is that perhaps Leafs fans have had enough of their favourite team failing to make any meaningful progression with this current core after over half a decade. It certainly doesn’t help that they are coming off their worst playoff collapse yet, have not advanced past the first round in nearly two decades, and now hold the dishonour of having the longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history. While I don’t think this is the primary factor in this recent trend, logic tells me it may be playing a role in this.
While all of these could be reasonable explanations for why the Leafs have not yet hit 100% capacity, I believe the real reason is a simple one: they were only recently given the green light to have full capacity for home games.
The Ontario government made the announcement on October 8th to fully allow fans to watch Leafs, Senators, and Raptors games in their respective arenas. That is a mere five-day difference from when the Leafs began their season, which would not provide some fans who were interested in going to Scotiabank Arena with enough time to gain the finances necessary to purchase a ticket. When you consider that a good number of fans would rather get theirs in advance instead of banking on finding a cheap deal at the last minute either online or from a scalper, it’s no wonder attendance numbers have taken a hit at the start. I can imagine that as the weeks progress, that group of fans who will make up the final few hundred needed for a game to be a sellout will be able to get their hands on tickets.
Having said all of that, I do not believe this to be a trend to be concerned about. As the season progresses and we get to November and beyond, the attendance numbers should pick up again and reach 100% or higher. Should the numbers not improve or, dare I say, take a further dip, then one or a combination of the three other factors I mentioned earlier could be the explanation of why that is the case. MLSE would then be wise to consider the product they are putting on the ice and the high prices they are charging.
So while I would not lose sleep over the Leafs not yet recording a sellout crowd, it will nonetheless be interesting to see how many games it takes before they do so for the first time in 2021-22.