Monday, May 31, 2010

Bettman Very Small-Minded

This morning, I read that Gary Bettman had recently slammed the IIHF for its comments over players.

The elfin commissioner was right about Rene Fasel being out of line, but completely short-sighted in the rest of his commentary:

"I'm not happy with the way the IIHF somehow feels it has an entitlement to these great athletes who risk their careers, and put themselves out of their own time without anything but love of country to be belittled by the IIHF. If I sounded a little passionate on the subject I apologize, actually, I don't"

I understand that Bettman is the man that has been hired by the owners of the NHL teams (and the men that they believe they own the men who play for them) to make sure the NHL is where hockey lives. I understand he wouold rather not have any hockey games outside the 30 cities where his teams have jurisdiction. But that is small-minded.

The perfect juxtaposition for Bettman's feeble foresight is the grand est sporting event on earth about to take place in 10 days time. Football's World Cup is an event played by professional footballers for their countries, for free. Like the NHL, the English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and every other league worldwide laments the problems of injury and fatigue that the World Cup (and particularly the two-year long qualifying campaign) has on their paid employees.

However, the leagues around the world have gotten over it. More to the point, they have rejigged to be able to take advantage of the surge that such a tournament (and other similar tournaments provide. Savvy teams travel to markets like Malaysia and Japan where equity for the sport has been built internationally, but unmatched in their domestic competition. And, as the owners of Milan Baros' former contract would attest, teams aren't shy to equate international performance (and the spotlight it provides) to tack on millions and millions in transfer fee demands.

In short, while no sport has had the perfect approach, it seems that in football teams and international federations have at least come together enough to realise that they can grow the game together and feast on the harvest together as well.

Hockey is a poor cousin by comparison. Every international competition is met with great reluctance, if it is held at all. Sure the Olympics were great, but even there most NHL owners want out. Instead of looking to Sochi in 4 years as a chance to galvanise another country behind its host team's quest for Gold, NHL relics worry about their 41 homes games only.

But hockey has a real chance to be a number two sport in some countries in Europe. Scandinavia and certain Eastern countries are already there, but comsider that Switzerland, Austria and even Germany already have a keen interest, and this without any of the world's best competing in their home leagues. In Germany at the recent World Hockey Championships, a world record 77,000 fans watched their country's team play the USA. To put that in context, that's more fans for one game most Canadians would never think about watching on TV than teams with 19,000 seaters can hope to pull for a sevent game Stanley Cup series with home ice advantage.

There are a lot of fans in countries like Germany, waiting for the chance to see the world's best, apparently. When the world's best decide they'd rather have an extra week tacked on to their 5 month summer instead, then it's easy to see why the tournament organizer would be a little miffed.

The IIHF is trying to mimic FIFA's model by setting up meaningful competitions like championships and Champions' Leagues, but the NHL wants none of it.

So while we read how the NHL is living its greatest TV moments since 1999 with a final between two American cities where hockey fans actually live, it is still a pathetic set of numbers.

1/3 of TV sets in Chicago and a quarter in Philadelphia as well as 3% of Americans watched the Stanley Cup final Game 1. Sure it looks good next to a Pittsburgh final, but consider for a moment what football can do:

- 93 million viewers on average per game for the World Cup
- Nearly 300 millions viewers around the world for the Final
- Nearly 6 billion viwers over the whole tournament

The NHL TV numbers are child's play in comparison. As a fan of the game. And a believer that hockey really is the best game on earth, it's more than a little bit disappointing to have to sit behind leadership who see their middling success and want to call it a day.

A very small-minded approach indeed.

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