NHL Arena Trends: Down-sizing or Right-sizing?

After years of “bigger is better” sports facility planning and design, trends are now pointing towards smaller venues. In response to the trend, facility owners are removing seats in existing arenas and replacing them with space for a wide array of features aimed at improving the fan experience and increasing general revenue opportunities. 

On Thursday the Ottawa Senators announced that they would be removing (placing a tarp over) 1,500 seats for all games this season at  Canadian Tire Centre. From Sportsnet:

“The attendance shifts have been dramatic over a period of two decades,” Melnyk told reporters Thursday. “The whole trend now is less seats and more clubs and frankly smaller stadiums.

“When you look at things like a new stadium downtown, we’re not going to build a 20,000-seat stadium. It will probably be closer to 15,000-17,000 in there.”

This from a team that made it to the Atlantic Division Conference final last season.

In a recent interview with Sports Business Daily, Tim Romani, founder and CEO of Icon Venue Group, commented on the current arena trend:

“Overall, there is a move to downsize capacity. It’s happening up top, but not in the lower bowl or in the P1 [top-tier] premium areas, because 70 to 80 percent of the ticket revenue still comes from the first 15 to 20 rows. There’s a real focus on making sure that those counts are right.

The concept of a shrinking arenas can be difficult to grasp, or not take  as a negative for live sporting events because the traditional seating bowl (venue layout) has been in place for decades. But that is changing.

First and foremost, reducing the number of seats in an arena does not necessarily correlate to a reduction in the popularity of a team or sport. It is more directly related to a shift in generational and cultural values and the public’s desire to attend traditional live events – A shift from the traditional “sitting in a seat” to a need for enhanced, variable and dynamic experiences. In short, arena sizes aren’t drastically changing, but the contents and uses inside the arena are (continuously) evolving. And this will continue.

Seat reduction at the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field. In the NFL, local television broadcast availability is dependent on official “sellouts” status, thus empty seats take on added significance. (Photo: The Fantasy Football Guys)

Planning and designing for a new arena is much like trying to hit a moving target, as live event attendance and pop cultures are continually evolving and shifting. All Sports Facility designs represent what was best for the times the facility was designed. While all degrees of facility planning include forms of long-range forecasts and future predictive models, the fact of the matter is they don’t take into consideration cultural values and other ethereal values. Simply put, Arena “right-sizing” is a tricky game that changes with time.

Having said that, there ARE additional factors leading to the current trend in sporting event attendance. Increased ticket and concession prices and transportation challenges are being countered with a wide array of event participation alternatives including live streaming, social media participation other digital experiences. (A team’s poor performance will obviously affect numbers as well.) The trick for owners is monetizing the new experiences.

[Editorial reminder for Caps fans: Ted Leonsis inherited a terrible lease on the Capital One Arena (formerly Verizon Center) when he purchased the franchise (Leonsis has stated it’s the worst deal in the league). As a result, Ted’s hands have been essentially tied to some extent, with regards to pricing and budget management for the Capitals.]

Shifting Cultural Values
Existing facilities are also currently adapting to meet the new needs of millennials who are more interested in hanging out than sitting in a seat to watch the game. (AKA short attention span syndrome for us old fogeys).

One benefit to “right-sizing” arenas that hasn’t been mentioned is the overall affect on the fans and the home teams. The sight oempty seats does no one any good, including fans attending the game and the perception to the home team.

Anyway, the bottom line? The only constant in life is change, and that can also be stated for Sports Arenas. And this is a good thing.

Related Articles
Spectator Venues are Realizing the Benefits in Downsizing Seating Capacity.
Venues 3.0: Smarter. Smaller. Social
Is New Mega-skating Facility Future Headwuarters for Washington Capitals?

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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4 Responses to NHL Arena Trends: Down-sizing or Right-sizing?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Remember that Ottawa’s arena is a good 25 minutes east of town, in the middle of a parking lot, much like the old Capital Centre. I’ll leave out Montreal and Toronto here, but middle markets like Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg all have very few problems filling the seats, especially the nosebleed ones, for teams who are winning fewer games (albeit ones that don’t play an NJD style trap that’s oh-so painful to watch.) Having gone to a game there, it was totally disconnected from the rest of the city, I really wanted to like it, but it was just dead… Maybe they put a new arena in Byward, or even across the river in Gatineau soon.

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  3. Gabe Worden says:

    What they need to is fix some of the seats which won’t fit a normal size person and only fit my 9 year old daughters body.

  4. I do agree with the appealing to millennials part in arena improvements and upgrades. And I remember when FedEx Field removed the seats from the upper deck. When those seats were there the seating capacity was just over 90,000.

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