Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Some morning reading material for the NHL pooh bahs

The Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt has put together a rather informative bit of analysis about the brave new world that the NHL has entered. With worrisome TV ratings in the USA, declining attendance in previously bell weather cities and an impression that even the status of a niche sport in the States is at risk (when you’re losing out to Arena Football, soccer and lacrosse you have an image problem!), the state of the game has seen healthier days.

Brunt who co-hosts a sports talk radio program out of Toronto with Bob McCown on the Fan 590 and Rogers Sportsnet, tapped a few of the conversations of the last few weeks to make his case that things are a tad amiss in the executive offices of the NHL.

It’s an interesting look at the game from a business and marketing level, one which won’t of comfort for the fan of the game hoping to see it grow and prosper.

Taking a hard look at NHL with euphoria wearing off

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One of the defining moments of our time came when the President of the United States landed in a combat plane on an aircraft carrier, then strolled out, beaming, to make a speech in front of a banner that read "Mission accomplished."

The point, as has become clearer with every passing day: Sometimes it's best not to declare victory until all the returns are in.

Not to trivialize grim, real-world realities by drawing comparisons with the pretend world of sport, but there was something positively Bushian in the National Hockey League's response to the end of the 2004-05 lockout.

The club owners had won unconditional victory, the vanquished players were just thrilled to be half of a new "partnership," the game and the business of the game would be stronger than ever and no damage had been done by the long work stoppage that wasn't easily repairable.

By the time the 2005-06 season began, the public-relations machines were running full blast, trumpeting full arenas throughout the league on opening night, while most fans were rightly celebrating the improved aesthetics of the sport.

Those who lived in Canada would naturally have assumed that since the battle had been fought largely on behalf of small-market teams here -- commissioner Gary Bettman said as much, at least when he was on this side of the great unguarded border -- their future had been made secure under the new economic system.

On, now, went the NHL to the brave new world, with owners, players and their union leaders all singing from the same hymnal.

Only this season, with a bit of the euphoria finally wearing off even in the hockey heartland, is the true measure of that "victory" beginning to become apparent.

The sport is dead as a national television property in the United States. Not struggling. Not in development. Dead.

Perhaps that shouldn't be news, since the league has just about always floundered at the network level. But this season, regional numbers are decreasing as well.

(On Prime Time Sports, USA Today television critic Michael Hiestand, who has no particular axe to grind, compared hockey on television to horse racing, and as minority passion to stamp collecting, which may well be unfair to philatelists.) This year's party line from the NHL head office is that attendance is off by only 1 per cent from last season -- though without a standard system for measuring how many people are actually in the rink, those kind of official numbers are meaningless.

What is obvious are more vast stretches of empty seats than ever before, most dramatically in what were once very good hockey towns: St. Louis, Chicago and Boston. The Blues, for a game against the Blackhawks this season, opened the doors and watched as only 5,400 fans (announced) walked through the turnstiles.

After a year in which close to half of the NHL cities didn't have a reporter covering the Stanley Cup final, the U.S. sports media seem to be even further backing off the game. In that light, the decision to leave ESPN for the obscure, in some places unavailable, Versus network is right up there with John Ziegler's infamous SportsChannel America cash grab. On the most important sport outlet in the United States, hockey is now largely out of sight and out of mind.

So a year away did exactly what some predicted it would -- it drove hockey further down the professional sports pecking order. Feel free to come up with a theory how it might start climbing the ladder past arena football and the like -- the popular ones are high-definition television, and bloggers replacing the interest of the conventional media, but just try to espouse it with a straight face.

Still, at least the world is a safer, more secure place for those small-market Canadian franchises. Right?

Consider what would happen the minute the Canadian dollar, hovering about 86 cents (U.S.), slid under 70 cents. Those same clubs that said they were struggling for survival are spending more, bringing back less from the league now that the Canadian subsidy program is gone, and would be shattered if their costs suddenly soared by 10, or 15 or 20 per cent.

There is some good news about the new economic order, though, and it can be found right here in Canada.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, though they may be doomed to mediocrity on the ice forever by the new economic order, which awards drafting and development and eliminates quick, throw-money-at-the-problem fixes, will again be forced to spend $20-million or $30-millions less than they might have, with no corresponding drop in revenue.

Mission accomplished.

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