Written by: Neil Acharya
Follow: @neil_acharya

The Toronto Rock will begin their third season playing in the FirstOntario Centre on Dec. 9. As it stands, their move to Hamilton, Ontario appears to be paying off. 

Average attendance increased last year by close to 1,500* fans per game from the season prior as the Rock recorded an average of 9,423 fans, a number which was bolstered by analyzing and implementing data during the off-season. 

Through surveys and feedback solicited from “insider” subscriber lists, social media and utilizing the capabilities of ticketing software, the organization found useful intelligence such as what start times worked best and how fans got to the games.

“We were playing games in a market we were very unfamiliar with,” said Terri Giberson, VP of Business Operations for the Rock. “This information was gathered from sales data and all of this was prompted in response to our decision to move to Hamilton from Toronto. 

“We found that we made the right decision.”

The Rock had its largest crowd ever since relocating to Hamilton after the 2020-21 season and it is probably no surprise that it was versus the Buffalo Bandits who play just over 100 kilometres away in western New York.

13,127 fans showed up on April 1 in what was their highest attendance in over a decade.  Though the Rock and Bandits have always maintained a rivalry, there is reason to believe the attendance was bolstered by two key factors - proximity and the Saturday night scheduling.

When playing in Toronto, they were sitting next to the elephants in the room - the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, behemoths in an already crowded market. It helps that in Hamilton they don’t have to compete with Hockey Night in Canada.

“We know where our fans are coming from and securing a Saturday night home game schedule was a priority for us,” Giberson said. “We can very clearly tell our Saturday night games are the best attended. It’s how it was and how it shall remain. Trying to get downtown Toronto on Friday may be harder than getting to Hamilton on a Saturday.”

Affordability of parking and concessions has also been more favourable since moving down the Q.E.W. to their new home.

National Lacrosse League attendance last season reached its third highest total since the league was founded in 1986. It was also the third time attendance surpassed the million-fan mark with 1,039,418 passing through the gate across the league. The other two times occurred in 2007 (1,138,225) and 2008 (1,083,345).

It was good news all around considering the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered part of the 2019-20 season and all of the 2020-21 schedule.

The Calgary Roughnecks set the NLL’s single-game attendance mark last season with 17,444 fans on March 17 versus the Saskatchewan Rush.

The Halifax Thunderbirds also set a franchise high when 10,008 fans came out to see them beat the New York Riptide on April 21.

The NLL began the 2023-24 season on Dec. 1 with a balanced schedule which allows for each team to play every other team once, plus four additional “flex” games. Amongst other things, these games will “persevere rivalries” and “highlight star player matchups.”

For the Rock that means, in part, cashing in on their base as the only Ontario-based team in the NLL.

“The Rock are in a bit of a unique position being the only team in Ontario and Ontario being home to many of the NLL players,” Giberson said. “We will definitely be paying attention to the attendance on the games when we are hosting teams we haven’t played at home as it’ll be an opportunity for some of these Ontario players to play in front of their friends and family locally.”

In October it was announced that sixes lacrosse would become part of the Olympic program for LA28. This would be the first time lacrosse has been a part of the games since 1948 and its another reason the NLL is excited about what is to come. 

“Today’s historic announcement bringing sixes lacrosse to the 2028 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles cements our sport’s status as an internationally recognized powerhouse primed for exponential growth,” NLL Executive VP of Commercial Operations, Kurt Hunzeker said in an October press release.

He added “There is a robust appetite for all disciplines of the game and this Olympic opportunity will fortify a collective rise-the-tide mentality.”

Sixes lacrosse is seen as the faster paced cousin of field lacrosse and box lacrosse (which is the format of the NLL). Sixes is played outside on a compacted field with shorter duration. A palatable example would be rugby sevens compared to rugby union and rugby league.

Giberson sees a wave of interest following LA28. “It will peak interest in the various leagues and it includes women’s sixes which is tremendous,” Giberson said. “I am really curious to see how the minor levels grow after the Games and the interest (that comes) in the NLL.”

*Note that 2021-22 season had three games without fans (TSN broadcast only) and a game on Dec. 18 which had attendance significantly impacted by Covid-19 resurgence.