The importance of rink crowd-capacities in the AIHL
Traditionally, ice hockey is not a sport you’d associate with Australia.
However, in recent years the sport has increased in popularity here. Bigger crowds are now turning out to watch Australian Ice Hockey League games, and there is a greater opportunity for kids to learn how to play the game.
With the rapid progression of technology and social media over the last decade, world-famous ice hockey leagues such as the NHL of North America and the KHL of Russia are a lot more accessible to fans all over the globe.
Games can be broadcast live and streamed on laptops, clips can be shared on facebook news feeds and match notifications and statistics can be sent straight to your phone.
This has undoubtedly been a large factor in the rise of Australian ice hockey. You only have to take a look around at AIHL games to spot a mix of NHL jerseys littered amongst those of the AIHL teams. Clearly plenty of Aussies are hungry for ice hockey to sink its skates firmly in Australian ice.
However, the AIHL is a semi-professional league. A bigger proportion of the fanbase attend the games in comparison with the aforementioned leagues.
There is a strong case for the argument that a huge part of semi-professional ice hockey stems from experiencing the game in person and soaking up the atmosphere, with less emphasis on post-match media and journalism in comparison to professional leagues.
Therefore it makes logical sense that if ice hockey in Australia is to continue to snowball in popularity then the venues for the games will need to improve to meet the demand of the fans. There needs to be reliable rinks with higher crowd capacities.
The Medibank Icehouse is home to the Melbourne Mustangs and the Melbourne Ice. It’s the best venue in the league. With two Olympic-sized rinks, one of which has a 1,000 seat capacity, it can be considered a world-class facility.
Apart from the game-day attributes, the Icehouse boasts a busy daily schedule of public skates, lessons and ice hockey training sessions.
Subsequently, the fanbases of the Mustangs and the Ice have both dramatically increased since it opened in 2010. If other teams in the league had the same quality of arenas as the two Melbourne teams currently do, perhaps we would see an even bigger rise in AIHL-followers.
Take the Sydney Ice Dogs for example. A great organisation with some great players, yet they play their games at the Liverpool Catholic Club Ice Rink which has a seating capacity of 500. A regular season home game there might see around 450 supporters attend the game.
This is a strong contrast to some of the Melbourne Ice games that can often sell-out of all 1,000 seats. Melbourne derby games are especially jam-packed.
The point to realise here is that clearly the restrictions of the rink have a big impact on the size of the fanbase. The Melbourne Ice’s fanbase eclipses that of the the Syndey Ice Dog’s, and the Medibank Icehouse has double the capacity of the Liverpool Catholic Club.
There will of course be a multitude of other reasons that affect how many followers a club will attract. Some argue that the quality of play of a sports team, and their overall success on the ice or the field, often dictates the size of the fanbase.
But one thing’s for sure, if clubs such as the Ice Dogs and the Ice regularly come close to selling out home game tickets, a bigger arena is needed. A semi-professional league is more dependent on game attendances than professional leagues, to both help improve the fanbase and to help boost team revenue (which is additionally important for further team development).
Some AIHL teams now stream games live in an effort to improve publicity. The Melbourne Mustangs games for example are generally streamed by 1,200 to 1,500 people. This is only roughly twice their normal game attendance.
If you compared the number of people watching an NHL regular-season game either on TV or via the internet against the number of people at the game itself, with that of AIHL games, the ratios would be much much different.
This signals the importance of crowd capacities in AIHL rinks, and leads to the question: As good as the Medibank Icehouse is, has the AIHL outgrown even this venue?