National Hockey League
Friday, February 25, 2005
Phil Miller over at The Sports Economist posts about a paper done by Martin Schmidt (Portland State) and David Berri (Cal State Bakersfield) that examined the impact of labor strikes on the demand for sports in the NHL, NFL, and Major League Baseball (article text is $11).
Phil posts their conclusion which can be summed up this way as well: you may not be back next season, or even the season after, but you’ve come back every other time, and we think you will now too… and we’ll do it again soon too.
While I have zero disagreement with their historical findings, the tomorrow of now was not the tomorrow of 1994 for the NHL. People like to crap on the league and hockey in general today, but in ‘94 hockey was talked about as a sport on the rise and people were looking forward to it being on broadcast television on Fox (seriously, they were looking forward to that). New arenas were being built and everyone had the attitude of “any day now” when it came to that year’s lockout.
Here we are, ten years later and except for the “Saturday that never was”, no one has been expecting a deal to be done. There are not a bunch of soon-to-be built arenas that people are waiting to visit. Ratings are down, not up - and even with no lockout, all hockey has received is criticism from all angles.
People will most likely return to see live games. I have little doubt about that. There are enough hardcode hockey fans for that. Sure, they’ll lose some season ticket holders, but a few years of good promotions go a long way and as much as we hate to admit it, we still love hockey and the NHL, as long as it’s in its current form, is the best talent hockey has to offer.
TV ratings, however, aren’t going to fly back up any time soon. The general public isn’t excited for the time hockey comes back and many of us now have 200 niche channels on cable and satellite that we didn’t have a decade ago. We have more options, and our watching habits need to be won over again.
What the NHL needs to win back more than anything is exposure. Count on losing money now, even the NHLPA admits that’s going to happen, so we can all say it’s a safe assumption to make. Just work on growing the audience. Don’t compare it to ten or twenty years ago. Don’t compare it to the NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR or golf. Don’t compare it to network television. Just look at yesterday and try and go up - that’s it.
What should be done:
- Eat all the criticism that comes from media folk ribbing the NHL for taking NBC’s AFL-like agreement (where the NHL doesn’t get paid a large fee like other “major” sports). Eat it and foot the bill if NBC will agree to put a few more games on the air whenever you can get some games on the ice.
- Make NHL Center Ice dirt cheap. We all know it’s not going to be for free, but don’t price it like the other sports out of the “we’re on the same level” mindset. No one has to say “we have to do this to get people to buy it”, simply say “this is part of the way we’re apologizing to the fans who have stuck by us.” See? We’ll take some spin if it’s done right.
- Get the NHL Network on in the US. Do whatever it takes to get the major carriers to pick it up and make sure it’s cheap/free and easily available. I have an extra sports package with Time Warner because I wanted to grab three Fox Sports College stations and College Sports TV. They show a good amount of college hockey, and it’s one of the ways I’ve been getting my fix. Guess what else is in that package? NBA TV, Fuel, and the Tennis channel. Get in there.
- Work closely with any company looking to make an NHL-licensed video game. Video games are huge, I don’t need to tell anyone that. Nor should I have to remind anyone about how a young fan base can be built from video games, but I’m reminding everyone anyway. Hockey games still do fairly well, encourage companies to keep at it. Don’t get greedy and sign an exclusive agreement with any one game maker. The NHL needs game makers to keep competitive and keep adding to the games as much as possible. Encourage the game makers to sell the games cheap, lower the licensing fee temporarily if necessary. Get AHL and any other minor league or international teams in there that you can. Video games are one of the easiest ways to educate fans about the game and introduce them to players, and you will want people to know about the players after the lockout is over, even those that may not be in the NHL yet. Having the opportunity to play as a local minor league team can be a real techy-grassroots marketing method.
- Give media more access. Players may be irritated at first and coaches may want to toss cameras out of the lockerrooms, but the more hockey players are available to the public, the easier it will be to recognize them. You never know, someone may emerge as a personality star - something the NHL desperately needs.
- Give “new” media more access. Anyone who runs a website knows you can be treated like a second-rate citizen. Guess what? More people may read someone’s fan website than a beat reporter’s column. If you want to reach fans, reach them, they can help you more then you realize. If you want any proof of that, look at how the US political parties treated bloggers last year. There was a reason for it - they can make a serious impact.
- Bring in the new, keep the old happy. Don’t forget the fans who have stuck through this lockout and are still supporting you. Don’t just sponsor youth hockey in new markets to try and make new fans, get in your strong markets as well and remind them why they love the game so much. Hardcore fans make more hardcore fans. Commercials, promotions and sponsorships can’t compare to someone taking their son, daughter or buddy to the game hyping up the experience the whole way.
These things can help the NHL with what it needs: exposure, exposure, exposure. Fans bring in money from tickets, merchandise, (future) tv subscriptions and the corporate sponsors who want to reach those fans. Work from the ground up, it works.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
While I put up the Newslink yesterday, I forgot to call attention to the last part of the Q&A with the Great One:
Is it safe to assume you will be the head coach the next time the Coyotes take the ice?
“If we had played an abbreviated season, I was definitely going to give it a whirl. But I don’t know when the next time is the Coyotes are going to play a game. So, at this point, I’m going to step back and reconsider it before making a long-term commitment.”
So a would-be Coach Gretzky is iffy now. Another thing we’ve missed out on - finding out if the great player could be the great coach.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Last week, right before the NHL cancelled the season, FreakingNews.com, a site that does Photoshop contests based on the news, ran one for the NHL.
The contest directions:
With the NHL Hockey season being cancelled, what will the NHL players be doing? What will happen to their facilities…what will become of the Stanley Cup!?
If you’re like I am, you love to grab as much info as you can from xml feeds, whether it be rss or atom.
One thing I’ve found in my hunt for hockey feeds is that hockey or the NHL is missing from many mainstream media outlets that provide feeds.
Check out SI.com’s RSS feed list - notice no NHL.
I manually typed in nhl to replace the nfl in the NFL’s feed uri. Nada. 404 error. However, if you replace that with hockey, you do indeed get a feed.
Ok, so on SI.com, it’s not “missing out”, just being held back from the public for the moment, most likely due to the lockout. It is also very interesting that SI.com has decided to entitle their feeds nfl, nba, mlb - but not nhl.
Many other places hockey coverage is just being held back completely. SFGate.com has rss feeds, but no hidden Sharks or hockey feed. The Star Tribune in hockey-crazed Minnesota has rss feeds as well. While they hide their other feeds, some uri guess and check found a Twins, Timberwolves, Vikings and a Gophers feed too. Wild feed? Nope, not here.
While I have no doubt most will catch up later on, the point is - we’re still going to have to catch up later on. Another setback, thanks to the lockout.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
The IEG Sponsorship Reports estimates the NHL stands to lose $230 million in sponsorship dollars due to the season being officially called off last week.
“Assuming the league resumes play at some point, whether (the NHL) will again appear on those lists depends on whether the fans come back to the game,” said IEG VP Jim Andrews. If they don’t, then the league will have to win the fans back before it can even think of winning sponsors back.” Things are not looking good for the sport or its sponsors these days.
More from IEG in a syndicated NY Times piece, Canceled season leaves hockey future hanging.
Thanks to Merlin401 for the link. He also reminds you to think of these things while listening:
* Why would NO ONE from ANY source contact the league regarding the Friday night story a deal was done before they ran with the story?
* Why, when Bettman learned of the false stories going crazy, not make sure their BROADCAST PARTNER (espn.com) at least didn’t get sucked into it? Why not tell THEM there was definitely no deal personally to save them from embarrassment?
* What is this ridiculous story about “We initiated the meeting but only because we heard from sources that the players wanted us to call to arrange it”? Does that make any sense? The players would call to say “can you call us” and the league says “okey-dokey”
* Why would the league meet with NO guarantee that there was anything going to happen but “chatter” and why would they not ask a few questions before setting up this meeting?
* What the !*&% did they talk about for 6.5 hours if NO DEAL was ever offered on either end?
This is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard. Even if I kind of believe the players are more at fault here:
a) either I’m wrong and the league is just as culpable or
b) the league are total, clueless, idiots if they did exactly what Bettman said they did in this interview.
One of the most common questions I’m asked by other hockey fans I know is “when do you think they’ll play hockey again?”
For a long time my answer was “January, 2006”. While that’s probably still my best guess, the aggressive tactics of both the league and the players association make me think that there is the possibilty of seeing NHL hockey, in some form, by this fall.
What does “in some form” mean?
- The league and union get a deal done in time. Stop laughing. Please.
- The league brings in replacements, union holds steady.
- Training camp time comes around and the league says “doors open, show up if you want to”, and a mix of mid-level NHLers and minor leaguers show up.
One of the more interesting rumors I’ve heard lately is that the league would entice players to cross the line by possibly saying “first five players back get their former contracts honored in full”. Is it legal? Technically, I’m not sure, but I am sure it would have serious legal impasse implications. It was an ear-perker either way.
Monday, February 21, 2005
While they’ve had to deal with the trickle down effect all year, some minor league players still aren’t warming up to the idea of NHLers possibly taking their roster spots.
I thought I’d share a quote with all of you from a minor league player who recently had an NHLer come to his team:
Him coming [here] just fucks people over now, because we have to take salary cuts to keep him, and someone’s gonna lose their job in the next day or two, because now we have [an extra guy] on the roster.
I’m not sure how in-your-face he’ll be about it with his NHL-experienced teammate, so I will withhold names for the moment, no reason for added locker room tension.
If you’re looking for some more material about what happened over the last few days:
- Loyal fans get cross-check by Damien Cox of the Toronto Star
- Gretzky and Lemieux just made things worse by Ira Podell of the Associated Press
Sunday, February 20, 2005
So the NHL cancelled its season, and although it was officially gone, we all flocked towards the rumors that the 2004-05 NHL season may be “uncancelled”.
Hockey fans - even many who are against the concept of a mini-season - seemed excited that we may have some NHL this spring, but it was not to be.
So what did happen over this past week? Why couldn’t the league and union agree to a deal, and what made the two sides meet just days after an official cancellation?
The easiest answer is to everything is that they couldn’t agree about money, that shouldn’t come as any surprise. What many fans need to be reminded of is that it wasn’t “just” $6.5 million (US) that kept the two sides apart. It was $6.5 million per team over the course of the agreement, which should be either five or six years. Using five years, and with the league having thirty teams, that’s a disagreement of $975 million. At six years it’s $1.17 billion, note the “b”. So please throw away any “just”, “only” or “merely” - please.
So what about the rest of the storyline?
It’s no secret that time was running out to have any sort of season at all. Finally, a real deadline was set. With a real deadline, real deals were going to be presented. The league backed off of linkage between revenues and salaries, and the union said “ok cap (as long as there’s no linkage)”. They couldn’t get their numbers to jive and the deadline came and went.
Many players were furious. First of all, they’ve been told “no cap” the entire lockout, and the union agreed to one. Secondly, word is that Bob Goodenow told Steve Yzerman something along the lines of “this is the week when the league gives in”. Well, that came and went and Yzerman was supposed to be the one behind a group of veteran players who put pressure on Ted Saskin, Trevor Linden and Daniel Alfredsson. Another interesting PA tidbit is that supposedly upwards of 80 players knew about the cap proposal from the union - two left out were the Buffalo and Toronto player reps, Jay McKee and Bryan McCabe, respectively - whoops.
One thing these players weren’t being told is that purportedly Goodenow accepted a cap as a legal impasse move. His intention, by offering a contract with a team salary cap, is to show that he’s bargaining in good faith. If he tells the PA members otherwise (that he’s just doing it to look like he’s bargaining in good faith), well, then he’s obviously not bargaining in good faith. Joseph Heller would be proud.
So the players are now up in arms that the season was actually cancelled. There are big rumblings that they’re going to make another offer to the league, and this time Goodenow isn’t involved. But remember this - it was the league, not the union, that sent out the invite. Like a shark smelling blood, the league saw the union as vulnerable and thought this could be the best time to strike a deal.
So now we have clear signs of player angst, and the league sending out an invite. That was it, the rumors started to fly left and right about a deal being done and the season being “uncancelled” (word of the month btw, and I prefer the unhyphenated version, even though it’s not a real word).
The thing that everyone forgot is that the two sides were still around a billion dollars off from each other and that a group of owners thought a $40 million cap was too high, and that anything higher was even more ludicrous (it’s not hard to separate where each owner stands). While NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman only needs 16 of 30 owners to agree to a deal, and he’d probably get that many with a cap as high as $45 million, he still needs to do his best to make sure the owners on the lower end of the scale can survive. Many suggest that it probably doesn’t matter - any cap in place will raise the franchise value of all teams, and that any unhappy owner will be able to sell relatively easily (then you just have to deal with new owners possibly wanting to move teams, something Bettman doesn’t want to happen). There are a couple of NHL team wannabe-owners out there right now, former Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin being one of them (the old-ish rumor is that he wants to take a team to Kansas City). The wannabe-owners are banking on the league having a cap.
But I digress, back to the matter at hand: a deal between the league and the union was supposed to be struck up Saturday, but Saturday came and went with no formal agreements, and both sides saying “no progress, nothing further scheduled”. They’re still far apart, although you’ve noticed we’ve at least gotten to take a break from the phrase “philosophical differences”. Another thing was made clear: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are clearly just owners now, making statements for the league, despite Lemieux still planning on putting skates on again in the NHL.
There it is, some of the story you’ve seen in the press, and some of what I’ve heard. Take it as gospel or shrug it off, doesn’t matter now because the result doesn’t change - no deal done.
So what’s next? Not sure. From the very beginning I was banking on seeing NHL hockey again in January 2006. The aggressive nature of the bargaining process lately has made me more optimistic than I was before about seeing some NHL hockey this fall, although I can’t be sure if it’ll be because a deal is done, the union broke, or replacements come in.