Why empty seats at Sharks home games could be commonplace early this season

Why empty seats at Sharks home games could be commonplace early this season

SAN JOSE — The scores of empty seats that were evident at SAP Center for the Sharks’ last three home games could be a common sight through at least the first half of the regular season – and maybe all season.

The Sharks announced that just 10,059 tickets were sold for the team’s game on Tuesday with the Buffalo Sabres, but it appeared that far fewer fans were inside the 17,562-seat building for what turned out to be a 5-3 San Jose victory.

Regardless, it was the smallest crowd for any Sharks game in the 28-year history of the downtown arena when there haven’t been any capacity restrictions.

The Sharks announced a crowd of 16,137 for their season-opener on Oct. 16 against Winnipeg, which the team considered a sellout, although there were over 1,400 no-shows. Since then, the announced attendance for home games last Thursday against Montreal and Saturday against Winnipeg were 11,463 and 11,845, respectively.

It’s a far cry from where things were years ago when the Sharks had a 205-game sellout streak that ran from Dec. 3, 2009 to Oct. 23, 2014. Even three years ago for the 2018-19 season, the average announced attendance was 17,266, or 98.3 percent of capacity.

A larger crowd is anticipated for the Sharks’ home game Thursday against the St. Louis Blues, but it appears attendance will still fall well short of a sellout.

Multiple factors are playing a role, starting with what the team believes is a hesitancy by some Sharks fans to return to arenas in a pandemic.

Jonathan Becher, president of Sharks Sports & Entertainment, said in August that the team had sold around 9,000 full season tickets or equivalent for 2021-2022, down from 10,500 in 2019-2020 when the franchise was coming off an appearance in the Western Conference final.

Becher said with the organization’s encouragement, more season ticket holders this year opted to purchase half-season plans, which allows them to retain their seats and go back to a full season ticket package in 2022-2023.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 2: Hockey fans watch the San Jose Sharks play against the Buffalo Sabres in the first period at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

More of those fans chose to use those tickets in the second half of this season, Becher said, with games in March and April more popular than some games in October and November.

“We have a lot of people that bought a half-season this year, and they asked if they could put their half-season of games in the second half of the year,” Becher told this news organization on Oct. 22. “And although they didn’t say that’s because they would feel more comfortable the second half, you can assume from that.”

Becher said the Sharks have added a couple of hundred more season ticket holders since August, and got small boosts in individual ticket sales after the team started the year on a winning streak. He said the team’s on-ice performance affects individual sales, but less so for package deals like half-season and quarter-season plans.

“We’re not trying to maximize the number of season tickets as we may have in past years,” Becher said, “but just get people to a comfortable state with the idea that by next season, it’ll be a non-pandemic influenza.”

Still, selling tickets in a team downcycle is a challenge, especially when the local fanbase is used to a certain amount of success. The Sharks are looking to get back into the playoffs after missing the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since the mid-1990s.

“Let’s face it. At the end of the day, if we play better and if we put a good product on the ice, people will come,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said last Friday, a day before he and several players entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.

“We love playing at home and the Shark Tank is as loud as anywhere when it’s half-full or full.”

The City of San Jose mandates proof of full vaccination for spectators 12 and older for indoor events at city-owned facilities like SAP Center. While it can’t be ruled out that the vaccine mandate has turned off some spectators from attending, the Bay Area has some of the highest vaccination rates for people ages 12 and older in California.

According to data available on Santa Clara County Public Health website, 85.3 percent of residents ages 12 or older have been fully vaccinated. In nearby San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the percentage of fully vaccinated residents 12 and older are 90.9, 84.4 and 84.2, respectively. In California, 62.5 percent of all residents are fully vaccinated.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 2: Hockey fans watch the San Jose Sharks play against the Buffalo Sabres in the second period at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Becher feels the vaccine mandate has helped more than it has hurt.

“One of our top objectives is to make people feel more comfortable,” Becher said.

Empty seats have been a common sight in other NHL arenas, as well, as longtime sellout streaks have recently ended in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Nashville.

On the Sharks’ recently completed five-game road trip through Eastern Canada, Boston, and Nashville, only the game against the Bruins on Oct. 24 was played before a capacity crowd with an announced attendance of 17,850 at TD Garden. Arenas in Montreal and Toronto that normally sell out fell short of capacity.

Per figures available on ESPN.com, five teams have announced 100 percent capacity crowds for all of their home games this season – Boston, Vegas, Washington, Seattle, and Tampa Bay.

However, nine other teams have played before announced crowds of 80 percent of capacity or less – Calgary, New Jersey, Florida, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Arizona, San Jose, Ottawa, and Buffalo.

For the 2019-2020 season, only one team, Ottawa, was below 70 percent capacity at 65.9 percent.

“Our arena’s always loud,” Boughner said. “We understand that society and some people have been away from the game for so long, there are people that are obviously hesitant coming back in these situations.”

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