In 1995, hockey in Finland positioned itself as the most popular sport in terms of overall spectator numbers. Victory in the World Championship’s gold medal game over our dear neighbour in the west, Sweden, united the Finnish people in an unprecedented way. The timing couldn’t have been better, Finland had in the early 90’s suffered from an economic depression and success on an international level in sports was a perfect reason to give people hope of a better tomorrow. Although hockey had gained popularity in the country prior to May 1995, the 4-1 win in the gold medal game was the final step for hockey taking its place as the number one sport in the country of a thousand lakes.
The effect of the World Championship on the national league, called Liiga nowadays, was inevitable. People started finding their way to hockey games and therefore the attendance figure to a swing towards the sky. The development has however taken somewhat of a dive during the last couple of years. In fact, the average attendance figure of 4232 per game is the lowest figure the league has had in 34 years. Any specific reason can be hard to pinpoint, but here are a couple of thoughts why people don’t seem to find their seats in sports arenas in this cold and dark country of ours.
First and for most, there seems to be a pretty strange glory hunting fan culture in Finland. Many people follow hockey, but they don’t have a club they root for. And even if people do have a team they support, they might have a hard time admitting they root for it, especially during times the team isn't performing on the ice. It also seems like people are afraid of losing credibility in their socioeconomic position if they admit being “hardcore” supporters of a sports team. The situation is the opposite in Sweden for instance, where almost every person (despite their role in business life) have a crest they gladly associate them selves with. With this said, the threshold for people going and especially paying for a hockey game can be awkwardly high. Exceptions can obviously be found, in particular in times of political elections. A funny phenomenon, when a lot of politicians can be found in the stands of hockey games trying to gain a couple of extra votes by showing which bandwagon they belong to.
As they say, it takes two to tango. You can’t always blame the audience for not being in the stand, you also have to look at the management of sports teams. After doing some thinking on this matter, I’ve found that there is a lack of innovative thinking in many hockey clubs when it comes to marketing and sales departments. A problem doesn’t exist when your team is in the playoffs or playing well in the regular season, but somehow the arenas are awfully empty in November, when rain is pouring down to the tunes of Guns n’ Roses. Common sense would say that people don’t have anything else to do when it’s dark, wet and cold outside or does it? Hockey clubs could (and probably should) focus on sales & marketing campaigns in an attempt to attract more people to their games. In the National Hockey League, teams use players, which are by the way interesting characters as human beings, in their marketing in an admirable way, something clubs in Finland could implement in their processes. Create some buzz and fill the arena when you know you’re not going to sell out!
These thoughts have been more focused on off-ice factors, but the fact is if you’re team is looking awful on the ice, it’s hard to attract people to come and watch you. You can’t always win, but what bothers a regular fan is the way you lose. Differing from the NHL, Finnish league teams don’t seem to react in any way when faced with some adversity. Smash a stick in the boards, give a big hit, rub your glove in somebody’s face and fire up the crowd and your teammates. Do this, and they will guaranteed come and watch you again. One could argue that the league has its own responsibility in this, as they seem to penalize and give suspensions for every little contact that happens after the whistle. Bring a little bit of old-time hockey back!
Peoples free-time is limited and the competition of it only gets tougher. Finland just recently qualified for the Euro 2020 in football for the first time ever, which will only make it harder for hockey to keep its position as king of the hill. Time will tell what the future will bring, but if the attendance figures are the lowest in 34 years at a time when Finland is the reigning World Champion in hockey, something needs to be done. It’s time to react.
The author, Thomas Näräkkä, is an avid hockey fan and a regular visitor of Finnish Liiga games.