Coming out of the 2010-11 NHL All-Star break, I can’t help but think, once again, about the untapped potential of what I consider perhaps the most under appreciated sport this country has to offer, the NHL. Day after day, game after game, year after year, the league seems to maintain status quo here in the states – a distant trailer to the NFL, MLB, NBA, and college football. Some would argue NASCAR, the PGA, and college basketball belong on that list of front-runners as well, depending on what part of the country you hail from. So why is it that the NHL can’t ever seem to capitalize on it’s potential?
You see cities like Chicago that become hockey-crazed almost overnight when their team’s ownership actually makes an effort to win and market the team. All it took was about 15 years of “who gives a damn” from Windy City fans before the Wirtz family actually got a clue (too bad it took the old man’s death for it to happen) and came to the conclusion that butts in the seats are better than an empty barn every night. The Blackhawks’ front office finally decided that televising home games might be a good idea, the first time they’ve done so in decades. Let people see the product and they just might want to come in person – novel concept. Why wasn’t this forced on the Hawks by the league years ago? Wouldn’t a marketing focus on an original 6 team in the nation’s third largest TV market seem important? Or for that matter why wasn’t the Players’ Association demanding they do so for no other reason than the increase in revenue it would generate, which in turn affects the salary cap? Maybe there’s a clue in Chicago as to what is wrong with the league in general. Marketing still seems to be a tough concept for the NHL to grasp.
So now the Hawks are riding their Stanley Cup success to sell-outs every night. I saw it happen here in Dallas too in the late 90s and early 2000s. Starting at square one in 1993, a mere six years later the Stars had a waiting list for season tickets and were the hottest ticket in town. If it can be done in a non-traditional sun-belt market like Dallas, why can’t it be done everywhere? And more importantly, why can’t it be done consistently? So what’s the secret formula? Do franchises have to bring home the Cup each year for sports fans to care about hockey? Sure you have the hockey die-hards that show up for every game win lose or draw…(wait no more draws but I’ll get to that in a bit) but how does the NHL get those fringe fans to care when the home-town team isn’t championship caliber? Other sports seem to do it, and NHL franchises north of the border fill their venues with teams that are good (Vancouver), bad (Edmonton) and ugly (Toronto).
Let’s take a comparative look at hockey and the ultimate “big-boy” league in Chicago and everywhere else, the NFL. The Hawks had a decade and a half almost non-existence in the Windy City, while the Bears have packed them in for decades upon decades no matter the quality of the team. Now of course the Bears (and all NFL teams for now) only play 8 regular season home games (vs. 41 for the NHL). So maybe we aren’t comparing apple to apples? Maybe it’s not fair to expect fans to show for that many regular season hockey games, watch that many regular season games on TV. A sellout for the Hawks at the United Center, a big venue for hockey (built for Michael Jordan), is 20,500 hockey fans. So for the Hawks to sell out all 41 regular season home games it would take almost 850,000 ticket buyers to walk through the doors of the Madhouse on Madison each year. The Bears on the other hand have the smallest venue seating-wise in the NFL, with capacity around 61,500. So 8 sellout games for the Bears is around 500,000 fans (or tickets sold). That’s a big difference. But what about TV ratings? They’re monstrous for the NFL, minuscule for the NHL as every media critic is quick to point out. But again is that a fair comparison? Isn’t a lot more likely that sports fans will watch 16 regular season NFL games (most on Sunday afternoons competing against nothing except infomercials and bad movies), then they are to schedule 82 regular season games on the tube for the NHL, the majority which run against prime time programming? Or in the Stars case 9:30 puck drops for the majority of their road trips – but that’s another rant for another time.
So maybe there are just too many games in a season. Too many meaningless early November, Tuesday night games against teams that local fans know nothing about and care even less. You know the league and the NHLPA will never reduce the number of games (that would reduce revenue), so how can those games become more attractive to a casual sports fan? The NBA seems to manage an 82 game schedule. What is it that they do different? In addition to supporting the home town team, basketball fans also turn out to see the league’s superstars and their teams. Games against the Lakers, Heat and Celtics are sellouts in any NBA city. Fans come out to watch young guns Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. Simply, the NBA markets their players and subsequently their sport.
I have seen many fringe type fans come out of the wood-work here in Dallas during a long Stars playoff run. But why? No doubt the games get more media attention, the excitement builds and ultimately tickets become in demand. But why does that happen only in the playoffs? Is it because every game has ultimate consequences? Is it because the intensity builds? Is it because rivalries are being built? Yes, yes and yes. So let’s examine….we can’t make every game in an 82 game schedule mean as much as they do in the playoffs, but can we build intensity and have meaning besides playoff elimination or advancement? I think the answer is yes. In fact I’ve seen it in past years.
No doubt the playoffs have an inherent intensity because of the “win or go home” aspect of them. But they also generate that intensity due to the series format. What’s the saying? Familiarity breeds contempt? I couldn’t agree more. When teams play each other in a 7 games series it’s only natural that the intensity (and venom for each other) would build. The NHL needs rivalries. Think Red Sox vs. Yankees. Celtics vs. Lakers. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Cowboys vs. Eagles. Heck, think Red Wings vs. Avalanche in the 90s. That was can’t miss TV. How about the Stars vs. any team Bryan Marchment played on from 1999 -2006? Fans (and athletes) have their collective intensity peaked when they have a true dislike for the opponent. Remember April 1999 when the Coyotes’ Keith Tkachuk basically told Stars’ Captain Derian Hatcher through the media “either do something about it or shut up” in reference to Jeremy Roenick’s blindside hit on Mike Modano just nights before? No Stars fan, casual or die-hard, was going to miss that next game. Unfortunately for Roenick he missed the next 3 weeks with a fractured jaw courtesy of Big Hatch.
I saw a bit of the old school intensity recently when the Stars played the Oilers 3 times in a span of 15 days. The third meeting was exactly what hockey fans want to see. Hard hitting, good fights, and intense hockey start to finish. It was obvious a dislike had developed between these teams. Stars play-by-play man Ralph Strangis has thrown out the idea of home and home series to produce more of these types of games. I’ll go one further and suggest looking at Major League Baseball and the way they schedule their seasons. Why not travel to a city and play two or three games in a row over a 3, 4 or 5 day span before leaving town? Why not build up that contempt? Get those competitive fires burning each and every game. And just think of the reduction in travel time and expense for teams this would result in, especially teams in the West like the Stars, whose travel time and cost is exorbitant. In a league that has half of it’s teams struggle annually to stay out of the red and has several currently involved in bankruptcy proceedings you would think that alone would at least bring it to discussion.
Another issue I have with the league is the way games are settled and scored (I told you I’d revisit this). It’s just not a fan friendly system. I think the powers-that-be actually made strides in the right direction when they implemented shootouts to decide winners and losers 5 years ago, but they just didn’t follow this through to it’s logical conclusion. They finally eliminated ties (which no fan ever was happy seeing), but they kept the crazy point scoring system which now made no sense. In previous years when teams tied they were each awarded a point, versus 2 points for a victory and no points for a loss. They don’t have ties anymore, but now they have overtime losers (either during the 5 minute overtime period or the subsequent shootout) that still get rewarded with a point. Take no offense NHL but that always makes me think of pre-school soccer games – make sure nobody feels bad so everyone gets points. I’m sorry but if you lost the game you shouldn’t get a frickin point. Should we hand out juice boxes and apple slices too? I had a friend’s son ask me recently about the NHL standings in the paper. He wanted to know why Anaheim was ahead of Phoenix in the standing when the Ducks had 3 more losses than the Coyotes and only one more win. As I explained how you have to add in overtime losses too after overtimes or shootouts, and give a point for each of those, I realized that’s it’s just one more potential obstacle that might keep those fringe fans from becoming true hockey fans. Why make it more confusing then it has to be? It’s time for hockey to be just like every other sport in the world – standings by wins and losses baby, just wins and losses. There’s no need to have a point system at all.
I do appreciate some of the recent marketing strategies implemented by the NHL and I hope they continue to be creative in their attempts. From ideas like the Winter Classic (and of course partnering with HBO to document it this season) to trying to add spice to the All-Star game by having an old fashioned playground-like draft of players to decide the teams (and televising it). Anything that gets the players front and center of mainstream America is good for the game. Tell their stores. Show their faces. Get the ones with the biggest personalities out there. Use legends of the game that have retired – how about a Brett Hull- Jeremy Roenick show? Maybe most importantly the NHL needs to activate its partnerships with corporate America. Just think what a companies like Nike, Gatorade and T-Mobile have done for the NBA and its athletes like Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. No amount of self marketing can compare to that type of media clout and advertising budgets.
Back in June 1994 a Sports Illustrated cover story stated “Why the NHL’s Hot and the NBA’s Not.” A lockout followed and wiped out the entire first half of the next season. It was one of many examples of the NHL getting in its own way throughout the years. With lockouts, labor disputes, bankruptcies, bad TV contracts and over expansion the NHL has lost it’s way more than just a bit. The good news in all of this is there is still tremendous room for growth and improvement for a sport that is still terrific. In fact, this upcoming season may present an unprecedented opportunity for league exposure with NBA and NFL lockouts looming. It’s not too late to break out the GPS and get back on track – it just might take some leadership in the league office that’s not currently in place.