Friday, September 21, 2012

Hockey's Standard Bearers Careless

I have to say I am a little sick of hearing that fans will have to do without hockey this fall. It's a pervasive arrogance that would allow player and owner alike to believe that one league equates to an entire sport with worldwide participation.

That said, the NHL is still the unquestioned standard bearer of the sport. The best players in the world ply their trade in NHL arenas (usually) and the game at its highest level is normally found in one of 30 North American cities.

But in heading into another lockout, the standard-bearer for the sport is delinquent in its duty. Caught in a fight for the pie, the parties in negotiation seem to have forgotten they might still burn the pie altogether. And then make do with the scraps.

As I easily make do without hockey (plenty of real life goings on, not to mention other sporting interests), it is easy to understand how others might be doing just as well, if not better (after all, they are not taking even seconds out of their day to read an NHL-focused blog, let alone write one).

Does this not send chills down the spines of those who have rode the wave of NHL success. A second lockout, so easily accepted by the public, could spell downturns in popularity for the league and the sport.

Now we know Canada is secure. In Canada, hockey is woven into the fabric of the garments we wear. If we wish to make the best of the bad situation that is 20 below celsius, so it must be. But Canada will not carry the NHL as we know it. Without the wealth of the neighbour to the south, the immigrant players from the East might instead choose to enjoy the life of a European hockey league player.

The popularity of the game in the United States is an important factor in determining where the world centre of hockey will lie. And, I'm not sure the lockout will be the best impetus for growth.

Just yesterday, I picked up on an article posted to soccernet that exclaimed the rising popularity of the beautiful game in the US. The numbers are interesting.

Hockey, though a self-proclaimed member of the Big 4, is actually an outsider.

Football, basketball and baseball have firm places for the moment. But hockey in the US is the favourite sport of a mere 3.8% of the population (losing to soccer and racing). And in terms of fans of hockey, its 43.5% of Americans puts it well below the Big 3 and behind racing, fighting, skating and high school!?!

What should trouble the NHL and its players more is the proportion of fans who claim to be avid followers. As a percentage of all Americans, 10% claim to be avid hockey fans. From the previous percentage that means about 23% of people who are fans of hockey are avid fans. Let's call this the strength of affinity. Compare this to the Big 3: football (54% avid), basketball (41% avid) and baseball (34% avid) and notice the stark drop. But it is also lower than soccer (27% avid), racing (33% avid), fighting (37% avid), golf (26% avid) and high school (30% avid).

So from a lesser proportion of the total population, you also have a base with on average a substantially lower affinity.

The story about soccer was citing the rise in popularity over the years. The engine for this being the population between the ages of 12-24, what I think we could rightly call the next generation. Well how about hockey? Well, the silver lining is that the proportion is higher than the total population (4.3% vs. 3.8% cite hockey as their favourite sport). But it is also a clear loser to soccer and the Big 3 again, not to mention college sports.

If I was an owner I'd be troubled. If I was a player who cast a thought beyond my own collection of luxuries, I might be interested too. Hockey has gained momentum by creating a larger popularity among young fans. But guess what? Many fans in the 12-24 range have no lingering resentment of a lockout (yet), and flock (all 4.3% of them) to hockey from an experience with post-lockout rules and excitement.

Between the paucity of the hardcore in the US, the fragility of the new fans and the competition from other sports truly on the rise, one would think the motivation for a deal without strife would have been there long before the union and league wasted all of July and August on three exchanges.

As they fight for dibs on pieces with the most filling, the parties might do well to check up on their pie. Such careless regard might show that the piece that looked so small in August was more appetising in the end than the dried out crust of February's pie. .


  1. You're right. The NHL seems to be resting on its laurels. Which is bad enough. But since the laurels they're resting on were never really that big to begin with, I've began to wonder how they became so deluded in the first place, and why they expect the fan-base to keep running back, wallets in hand.

    What gets me, though, is the role of the victim that the players have adopted. Yes, they conceded last time, but trying to associate themselves with the average joe sickens me. Top-liners losing 20% means absolutely nothing, especially when you factor in endorsements. The average Joe losing 20% means he risks defaulting on mortgage payments.

    Not that the owners/league are anything but greedy as well, but one wonders if Gary Bettman continues to be the best choice to represent them. Everyone hates him. He could donate all his money to charity, give away free season tickets, and cure terminal diseases, but we would all still despise him and his smarmy demeanor. If the league got themselves a new puppet, they might look a little better in the eyes of the fans and players, even if the message was the same.

    In the end though, when it comes to millionaires fighting billionaires over money, I can no longer be bothered.

  2. Good write up; but,I still see a bit different and couldnt care less how americans see hockey. Is likely about the exact same as Canadians feel about Basketball, NCAA sports or Soccer.
    If somehow 10 american teams folded, i would be almost as happy as when Cammalleri was traded.
    But you are correct and is just another black mark on NHL owners and lock-out benefits no one, cept maybe 20 billionaires in the end (or are they planning on dropping ticket prices and merchandise costs to win back fans or giving back to amateur hockey in any way? maybe when hell freezes over eh.)