KENNEWICK — There were nights not so long ago when the number of "orange fans" at Toyota Center outnumbered the actual fans.
From 2002-03 -- the last season the Tri-City Americans did not make the playoffs -- to now, the team has seen an increase of 62 percent in attendance.
During that woeful 2002-03 campaign, the Americans drew 98,462 fans -- the second lowest total in team history. During the past six seasons, attendance has increased each season, with 159,264 fans filling the seats in 2008-09.
This season, the Americans saw an increase of nearly 7 percent over the previous year for the months of November and December, but when the first 27 games of this season are compiled, Tri-City is down 0.6 percent -- or 27 people per game -- from 2008-09.
Brian Sandy, the Americans' senior vice president of business operations, said the small decline in attendance is noted but not a cause for panic.
"There is a certain degree of concern when you see any decline," Sandy said. "We monitor those numbers closely. My goal from day one was to put us on a course for sustained growth. We'd love to see the attendance higher, but we are realists. I don't think any business in the U.S. or Canada has been immune to the economic downturn. We have lost a couple of sponsors, and that equals out to the numbers we have lost."
Those attendance numbers are a far cry from the Chilliwack Bruins -- who are down a league-high 20 percent -- and Red Deer, which is down 18.5 percent.
Portland, which spent the last three seasons in the basement of the U.S. Division with a combined total of 47 wins, has seen the most growth in attendance at 22.5 percent, followed by Brandon at 18 percent -- but the Wheat Kings' numbers are a little skewed.
As the host of the Memorial Cup, fans with season tickets get first dibs on tickets for the championship event. According to the Brandon Sun, 90 percent of Brandon season ticket-holders also are Memorial Cup ticket-holders. There are less than 100 single seats available for the Memorial Cup event.
"In many cases we are not surprised by the drop in attendance, but it is a concern," said Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison. "The economy has been a challenge for everyone. There was a slow start to the season, but we have a lot of great races in both conferences. We anticipate a great stretch run. It will be a real exciting race for the Scotty Munro (trophy for best overall record) and the race for the final (playoff) spot in the East."
Chilliwack's decline is due in large part to the American Hockey League team, the Abbotsford Heat (affiliate of the Calgary Flames), just 20 minutes down the road in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
"We forecasted that," Robison said of Chilliwack. "The Fraser Valley market, with the introduction of an AHL team, took away the fan base from Abbotsford. Chilliwack is more competitive than it has been and that has helped. They need to focus on getting a fan base development within Chilliwack and not the Fraser Valley."
Robison said the U.S. Division markets have more competition for fans than their Canadian counterparts, and that can reflect in the attendance numbers. But he noted that the Americans have done a good job of drawing fans.
"The U.S. markets are similar to Tri-City with communities having an emphasis on football and other sports," Robison said. "But what Tri-City has accomplished overall with making improvements to the building and maintaining a fan base is commendable. They do an exceptional job of promoting the franchise, and they have a competitive team -- a championship caliber team. We are pleased to see the turnaround of the franchise and the success they've had the last few seasons.
"We are excited with the success of Portland, and there are better days ahead for Seattle (which moved to Kent last season)," Robison continued.
The Americans lead not only the U.S. Division and Western Conference, but they also have the best record in the WHL. Having a competitive team and giving back to the community are key factors, Sandy said.
"We understand on-ice performance is important, but we also give back in the community, and I believe that's where the bond is formed," Sandy said. "That has been the genesis of our success."
-- Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; firstname.lastname@example.org