Wednesday, February 16, 2005

No Big Loss
By Ben Valentine

I've given up trying to understand the logic involved in the lockout. Or at least large parts of it.

For five months the NHL and NHLPA didn't talk. Then after enough false starts to get him tossed from the face off circle, Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner decided that Wednesday February 16th would be the drop dead date. Then the sides started the make progress. The players agreed to a cap, albiet a soft one set at $52 million. The owners said $40 million. The players countered with $49 mil. The owners with $42.5 mil. It seemed like something could happen.

Then, nothing. Bettman dropped the Armageddon on the 18th and the NHL became the first North American sport to cancel its whole season.A season ended before it began. Now, it appears we could be headed for another round of sitting around twidling thumbs.

Meanwhile, columnists, fans and casual observers all seem to be wondering if this is the death knell for the league. After all, a league that doesn't have fan support can't do something like this and not face some serious consequences right?

Actually, I believe they can.

The reason is simple. The NHL has the weakest fan support of any of the four major sports. Basically, at this stage there are few "casual" hockey fans. You're either a big fan or not. Meaning, you were on your way out anyway, or you are coming back whenever they drop the puck. That's why losing the NHL season is not the catostrophe that people are making it out to be.
Bettman is taking the heat, but tough love is needed to save the game.

This isn't baseball or basketball. Baseball killed itself by depriving itself of the most storied series in sports, the World Series. It destroyed any momentum it had gained through an interesting regular season; was Matt Williams going to break Maris' record? Would Tony Gwynn hit .400? Could the Expos win the World Series? That strike caused fans who were getting interested, to not care anymore. Expo fans were betrayed and cheated. Hockey this year has no momentum. The ratings for the cup last year, a great seven game series, were awful. The league got a TV deal akin to what Arena Football got. Few people cared. Those that did, like myself, truly love hockey. We'll come back when it's over.

Basketball hurt itself by having a lockout right when Micheal Jordan retired for the second time. People who were drawn to the league because of him had no reason to keep up with it when the lockout happened. Even the NHL in 95 had a growing fan base. It was a fan base that was weakened by the lockout and sent into the downward spiral. Then the backrupt franchises and the like sent the league to the bottom.

But today the league is at rock bottom. Think about it. A ton people are talking about the lockout and its ramifications. Do you think half of those people would even CARE about the NHL if there was no labor situation? Don't believe me? The two NBA Power Ranking gurus, Mr. Geballe and Mr. Medow are not hockey fans at all. However, even they were interested in what was going to happen to the league and where they go from here. That's what kind of shape the league is in. The lockout has increased interest, not lowered it.

This gives the NHL a unique opportunity. If it fixes the problems with team instability and creates competative balance, it can come back and in a few years be much stronger than it was last season. It's like a dysfunctional marriage. Sure, they could have kept outsiders happy, by putting on a show. They could have said it's okay, everything is working, we'll play the season. Who cares if we're averaging two bankrupt teams a season as long as we don't drive away our non existant fans with a lockout right? But instead, the league is taking a hard look at its problems. The die hard fans are like the kids in that marriage. They don't care how long it takes, just that the relationship is fixed for good so we can all get back to the good old days. Every hockey fan I know has said a cap is necessary and almost everyone has said that the game needs to restructure itself in some way. And those same fans have said they would rather wait and see the game fix itself, rather than put a band-aid on the problem and let things continue the way they were. And rest assured, if the last few days are any indication, they will not.
Who cares if he has nothing to do with the rest of the story, what hockey column of mine could be complete without a picture of Jarome Iginla?

So let's not kill the NHL yet. If MLS can survive in the US then hockey, a sport with a much larger fan base and more league interest worldwide certainly can. Sometimes you need to hit the bottom before you can climb back up. The reality is if when the arenas open, and the players hit the ice, if the product is good, people will come.

More people than would have come if they played this season.

Up next: I've talked a big game here, but how do you actually fix the NHL? I'll have more on that soon enough.


Blogger Drew said...

Great stuff. Thought I'd drop you a line to introduce a new blog.

Dedicated to Pardon The Interruption, it's called Pardon The Eruption.Feel free to check it out! Thanks!

2:28 PM  

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