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Blackhawks’ attendance plummeting as fans grapple with sexual-assault scandal

Large swaths of the United Center sat vacant as the Hawks drew officially only 15,946 and 16,449 fans to their home games this week.

Thousands of seats were unoccupied in the United Center for the Blackhawks’ game Wednesday.
Ben Pope/Sun-Times

Kyle Beach’s story rattled around inside Jonathan Mayotte’s head. It nauseated him. It ripped his heart out. It made him question his priorities.

For Mayotte, a Blackhawks season-ticket holder since 2017, the Hawks’ game Oct. 27 against the Maple Leafs was supposed to be another typical trip to the United Center. But while waiting for his wife to finish work, Mayotte had watched Beach’s interview with TSN, in which the former player revealed just how much the Hawks’ cover-up of his 2010 sexual assault destroyed his life.

And those words changed everything.

‘‘My wife walked out, looked at me — as I’m putting my shoes on — and said: ‘Do we really want to go to this game?’ ’’ Mayotte recalled. ‘‘And my response was: ‘No, I don’t really think so. I’m not in the mood to watch hockey tonight, and I’m really not in the mood to go into that building.’ ’’

Mayotte’s seats in Section 327 sat empty that night. He didn’t attempt to sell them or give them away. He purposely wanted them empty. He wanted to make it clear to Hawks management that what happened to Beach was unacceptable.

‘‘The only real voice that the fans have is when it comes to buying tickets, buying merchandise and things like that,’’ he said. ‘‘So if you do want to send a statement, that’s really your best way of doing it.’’

Thousands of Chicagoans have made the same choice recently. Empty seats dotted the United Center for that game against the Maple Leafs. And this past week, for games Monday against the Senators and Wednesday against the Hurricanes, large swaths of seats sat completely vacant. Some 200- and 300-level sections were largely uninhabited; even some 100-level sections featured empty rows.

Even some 100-level seats were unfilled for the Blackhawks’ game Wednesday against the Hurricanes.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

After years of losing, Hawks attendance already was slumping. Their 535-game sellout streak ended Oct. 24 against the Red Wings — before the sexual-assault scandal erupted. But with the reputation and community goodwill of the organization now shattered, crowd sizes have fallen off a cliff.

‘‘It’s definitely different,’’ captain Jonathan Toews said. ‘‘With COVID protocols . . . I feel like that could have something to do with the empty building, as well. And obviously the losing streak. [There are] just a lot of different variables right now. But it is what it is.’’

Toews isn’t wrong about the multiple variables. Some fans might be wary of crowded indoor spaces. Others might disagree with the United Center’s vaccination-or-negative-test entry requirement. Tangential effects of the pandemic, such as fewer people ending their workdays downtown, are also factors.

And attendance declines have been talking points NHL-wide this fall. Only five teams — the Kraken, Golden Knights, Lightning, Capitals and Bruins — have sold out every game; 11 did so in 2019-20. Eight teams sit below 13,000, a threshold only two teams finished below in 2019-20.

But the fact remains the Hawks are struggling at the gate. After leading the league in attendance for 12 consecutive seasons, averaging more than 21,300 fans every year, they rank sixth this season with an average of 18,470 through six home dates, and that likely will keep dropping.

They officially drew 15,946 and 16,449 against the Senators and Hurricanes, respectively, but that overstates how many people were there because attendance is calculated by tickets sold, not tickets used. The building was jarringly quiet, the atmosphere deflating.

Those figures might prove to be the minimum, given they were early-season, weeknight games against non-traditional opponents. Anger at the Beach cover-up unfortunately but inevitably will subside over time, too.

Nonetheless, demand remains low: On the resale market, the cheapest tickets available for nine of the Hawks’ next 10 home games are less than $25.

After a week of reflection, Mayotte returned to his normal seats Wednesday. He thinks the Hawks took ‘‘some steps in the right direction’’ with their responses to the investigation, he’s happy to support the innocent current players and he already has paid for the tickets.

Looking around the half-empty arena, Mayotte joked he expected Alexei Zhamnov, Jocelyn Thibault or ‘‘some of these guys who played when nobody was showing up’’ to appear. Indeed, comparisons to the early 2000s, when Hawks attendance ranked 23rd or worse every season, have been abundant lately.

That might be the direction in which things are trending. Many of Mayotte’s friends say they’re no longer willing to attend Hawks games. He expects it’s ‘‘going to be a long time before they come back.’’

And he’s unsure whether he’ll renew his season tickets come 2022.

‘‘After this year, we were thinking maybe a partial-season [plan],’’ he said. ‘‘If I had to answer that question today, maybe we wouldn’t. . . . I was hoping we’d keep these things forever and ever and be able to take our kids to the games. But now I don’t know.’’