Hockey gold: The Fan Value Index

It's a great game — if you can afford to go. The Fan Value Index ranks the best hockey venues for your family's entertainment dollar.

Every organization should be concerned with providing value for the money. But let’s face it, many aren’t. Governments squander taxpayers’ cash, but some corporations aren’t much better. They sign contracts that hamstring their future. They offer golden handshakes and pensions that don’t look right, never mind make any business sense. For the most part, pro hockey teams in this country get a free ride because of the built-in demand for what is our national sport (OK, OK, national winter sport). Until now.

We’ve crunched some numbers — on-ice performance, how much it costs for a family of four to attend a game and total player payroll — and (surprise, surprise) the Toronto Maple Leafs offer the least for the most. The Leafs charge the most of any team in the NHL and have been poor performers over the past four years.

Attending a game in Toronto will set you back a whopping US$411.30, according to the 2008 Team Marketing Report’s Fan Cost Index. That figure includes four average-priced tickets, two small beers, four soft drinks and regular hot dogs, parking, two game programs and two adult caps. That’s a whopping US$218 more than it would cost to see the Leafs play in St. Louis against the Blues, and US$123 above the average cost to see an NHL game. Watching the Montreal Canadiens play is not far behind the Leafs at US$361.30.

The reason? Both teams have among the most dedicated fan bases in North American sports. But whereas fans of the Canadiens rebel when the team stinks, Leaf fans meekly stop paying attention while still paying the tab. As the owner of the Leafs, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment doesn’t have to ice a competitive squad because the high-priced seats are paid for and long-term lucrative media deals are in place. Indeed, top management’s meddling ways have killed any chance the club might have had at success in recent years. New general manager Brian Burke may be able to change that and, if he does, MLSE may be able to make even more money.

To arrive at what we call the Fan Value Index, we combine the Fan Cost Index with on-ice results and player salaries:

• Overall won-lost record (60%). For most fans, winning is the key. The more often a team wins, the better the experience for the fans.

• Fan Cost Index (30%). An important factor in most markets.

• Team payroll (10%). Team payroll is a proxy for fan expectations. Higher-payroll teams are expected to play well, thereby heightening fan enjoyment.

By this measure, the Leafs are hands-down the worst club in the NHL. The New York Islanders, who finished dead last in the standings, are close behind, but even that team offered a better bang for the buck. Both teams are a far cry from the San Jose Sharks, the NHL’s top team in the regular season (nice playoff collapse) and the top team in our Fan Value Index.

Other top teams by FVI include the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins — all of which made the playoffs. (Except for Detroit these teams scored in the top half of the Fan Cost Index as well.)

The four other Canadian teams finish mostly in the middle of the pack, which is indicative of the fact they’re smaller market teams but ones that have relatively strong followings. The Vancouver Canucks offered the best value at No.10 on the FVI ranking, buoyed largely by the fact they were Canada’s best team. The Canucks were followed by the Calgary Flames (16), Montreal (21), the Ottawa Senators (23) and the Edmonton Oilers (25).

Better seasons would have propelled the Senators and Oilers up the rankings because both rank in the middle of the pack when it comes to how much it costs to see a game in their respective cities.

As for long-suffering Leaf fans, your best bet is to motor down the Queen Elizabeth Way to Buffalo, where tickets and all the accoutrements will set you back just US$222.70, almost half of what it would cost to watch the Sabres in Toronto. That’s a lot of extra money to spend on some tasty wings.