Monday, January 7, 2013

NHL Game On - But Does Anyone Care?

Professional ice hockey has always been considered the outsider among the big four sports (baseball, football, and basketball being the other three). It has struggled to draw fans to watch games in person, to have a viable TV package, and to gain air time on local and national sports radio and television talks shows. So when a lockout seriously threatened to wipe out the entire 2012-2013 NHL season, the players and management had to know that their game was going to take a serious hit in the public relations department. The two sides agreed over the weekend to the framework for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), but is it too late? 

The players and management have accepted that their sport, like the others previously mentioned, are a combination of both entertainment and business. But the average sports fan doesn't care about the business side of things. They only want to root their teams on, argue with other fans about who has the better team, and hope that when the season ends, it is their team hoisting the Stanley Cup or Lombardi Trophy, etc. 

Instead what you have is a game that has taken another huge hit to its public perception. There are many sports fans who won't watch hockey simply because of the fighting - which has been reduced considerably over the years - and others who refuse to pay the exorbitant price of tickets. Those that were willing to do so in the past will be less inclined now that the current season is a 50 game microcosm of a normal hockey season. 

The NHL had reached a new height in popularity when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, something they had not done in 40 years. Every sport benefits when their major market teams are involved in the championship process (baseball is probably the exception due to the lack of a true salary cap) and hockey was on everyone's lips in mid-June when the Rangers won the championship. 

Hockey also benefited from a down turn in professional basketball the same year. The cover of Sports Illustrated's June 20, 1994 issue screamed out, "Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not".1 A split cover photo showed an overhead shot of Rangers' goalie Mike Richter denying Vancouver's Pavel Bure on a penalty shot in Game 4 of the NHL Finals. It sat atop an overhead shot of Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon reaching for the basketball over his New York Knicks counterpart Patrick Ewing in the NBA Finals. 

Author E.M. Swift cited among other things, the lack of Michael Jordan in the league (1994 was Jordan's foray into minor league baseball), a 30% drop off in NBA conference TV ratings, and a perception that the NBA had turned to thuggery (implied by the LA Times) and the NHL was the trendier league (according to Sports Licensing International). 

So what did the NHL do with this new found popularity? They clashed over a new CBA of course! The 1994-1995 season was knocked down to 48 games by the time the two sides came to an agreement on the new pact. Fans already bitter from Major League Baseball's shortened/no World Series 1994 season, held up a big foam finger...but the finger was in a different place. The NHL was permanently damaged from that point on both, in popularity and, if you believe management, financially. Things only got worse when the entire 2004-2005 season was wiped out by another CBA clash. 

The 2011-2012 NHL playoffs were exciting on both coasts; the LA Kings would go on to win the first Stanley Cup in their 46-year history. They defeated the New Jersey Devils who had ousted their bitter rivals, the Rangers, in the Eastern Conference finals. There seemed to be a buzz about hockey again, but the need for a new CBA was an albatross that hung around everyone's neck and sure enough it appeared as though the 2004-2005 debacle was being replicated. 

Will the fans return now that there will be a game to return to? I've come across fans on both sides of the spectrum - those who will have nothing to do with the NHL (possibly ever again) and those who are so excited you would think a member of their family was coming home from war. Then there are those of us in between. The group that won't buy tickets to a game, won't spend money on merchandise, but are leaning towards watching the games. 

Why? Because the game is still a sport to me. The ugliness of the business can be left to the players and owners. 

1 - Sports Illustrated, June 20 ,1994

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