Friday, March 13, 2009

NHL Needs To Get Smaller In Order To Grow

Oh, to be NHL commissioner for one day. Just one.

Just one day is all I'd need to, with one stroke of my commissioner's pen, commit common sense.

I'd place all the Original Six teams in one division.

The rest? I'd let them fight on the floor for scraps.

That may seem like a counter-intuitive move, but what Gary Bettman and the NHL doesn't want to admit is that they have themselves a niche sport. And the sooner they come to terms with that, the better off the league will be, in the long term.

I know the NHL doesn't want to hear that. They fancy themselves a significant player in the world of professional team sports. They are, after all, still inferred to whenever someone invokes the phrase, "four major sports."

Yes, hockey is one of the "four majors", but they're no. 4, and they need a telescope to see the rear end of no. 3.

I've complained for years that the NHL has tried to appeal to the fringe fan at the expense of alienating its core. It's been borne out in the way the league has expanded, force-feeding NHL hockey to the Sun Belt and the West Coast. It's been displayed in many of the rule changes over the years, including the relentless assault on fighting.

If the NHL would only realize that if they cater to and listen to their core, the true hockey fan who's been interested in the game since they were toddlers, and not worry about trying to have mass appeal, then their efforts would be rewarded -- IF they can swallow some pride.

Some franchises might drop off, and so might some of the fringe fans who were hanging on by a thread. But the folks who truly love hockey, the ones who would dearly appreciate moves like creating an Original Six division, would very much stay. And, I submit, they might end up being the best marketing tool the NHL has ever had. Certainly the cheapest. Because they'd be Bettman's Johnny Appleseeds, spreading the word about the NHL to friends, co-workers, family -- you name it.

There's no shame in presiding over a niche sport. Look at NASCAR, for crying out loud. The good people over there don't hold races where there's no interest in racing. They don't change their rules to try to appeal to the fringe racing fan. No, NASCAR sticks to its core and caters directly to it. And that strategy has been pretty darn successful.

The NHL has seen itself come tantalizingly close to being a full-fledged member of the four major team sports, and it's killing them that it's just out of their grasp, in their eyes.

So if they'd only pull back, re-assess themselves and take a hard self-inventory, they'd see that this "appeal to the masses" approach is self-destructing.

A couple years or so ago, I moderated a roundtable discussion with ex-Red Wings Shawn Burr, Johnny Wilson, and Ted Lindsay. I asked each of them what they'd do if they could run the NHL. Burr didn't hesitate.

"I'd have surveys in every NHL arena," he said. "And I'd ask a bunch of questions about the game, to get the fans' opinions." Then, Burr said, he'd use that information to see what the game needed to fix. I thought it was wonderfully simple yet brilliant.

Bettman's been simple plenty of times, but rarely brilliant.

Can someone save the NHL from itself?


Michael David said...

The NHL needs to be saved from Bettman. We need to pull the teams from down south and put them in cool towns like Medicine Hat and Moose Jaw.

redhog1 said...

I am a Michigander living in NYC area for past 12 years. I grew up playing in St Clair Shores, and I still play and ref out East today. I am a huge Wings fan and was once a huge NHL fan. Your blog is dead on correct -- Bettman has mortgaged the value of this game against the hypothetical future value of the league with the end-of-the-rainbow pot of gold called a U.S. national TV network deal. is not happening. It will not happen. Abort mission and return to the ~21 teams that matter. The higher number of teams makes most of the regular season irrelevant and boring -- ask Mike Babcock who complains that all NHL teams clog the neutral zone. Aside from a few rule changes (and new enforcement of old rules) after the lockout season, there is nothing under the Bettman regime that has improved the game -- the guy lucked out that the talent flow from Europe increased so dramatically. Without that, he would be enemy number one -- he is to the NHL what Wall Street bankers are to residential mortgages -- more global talent and the eventual US network deal won't bail him out like bankers hoped always-risking real estate values would bail out their worthless mortgages. I predict some bankruptcies of some NHL franchises in next five years -- trust me, I am a Wall Street mortgage banker (commercial, not residential, before you go hating me).