Without fans, like these ones at Madison Square Garden, the NHL ceases to exist. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Clearly, there are two types of NHL fans. There are those who would like to see improvements made to the game in order to foster growth in both arena attendance and television viewing audiences. This contingent of fans wants the league to improve its product so the game grows, especially in the United States. The other segment of fans likes the game in its current form and does not think it is necessary to modify the product or strive to increase the fan base. Often this group of fans refers to itself as “traditionalists.” They like the game in its existing incarnation and bristle every time changes are mentioned or introduced.
The division between these two camps is not limited to just NHL fans. Team owners and senior management are also divided into similar camps. Some of these guys want the game to improve to elevate the NHL’s place within the increasingly competitive professional sports community. These people feel the NHL should aggressively attempt to “grow the game” to elevate its position on the sporting ladder and to increase their financial bottom-line. On the flip side, there are some teams content with the conservative approach and feel tinkering should be avoided at all costs.
Though I respect both positions, I must admit that I am a “grow the game” thinker (sorry, traditionalists). Each passing year, the NHL gradually loses position among sports entertainment options. How can anyone knock Tiger Woods when he stated “I don't think anyone really watches hockey anymore.” Growth-wise, the game is stagnant.
The NHL brain trust is not setup to succeed in growing the game. In no particular order, the league has four macro roles and responsibilities: Legal and Labor Relations; On-ice Product Development; Marketing and Broadcasting; and Fan Development.
If I were to issue a report card for its strengths and successes against these areas of responsibility, the NHL should pride itself for its strong legal work. The NHL deserves an “A” for its legal expertise (not surprising since the top manager of the league is a lawyer); however, there is enormous room to improve labor relations with the NHL Players’ Association. New leadership at the NHLPA leaves me optimistic things will progress and the new collective bargaining agreement is designed to force labor and management to work closely together to improve the on-ice product and revenue streams.
From there the report card loses its shine. The league deserves a “D” for on-ice product development. Yes, some changes were made to the game that significantly improved the product after the lockout, but the entertainment spectacle has been virtually neglected.
Fans believe the NHL deserves a failing grade for marketing and broadcasting. Many U.S. fans have been begging for a quality, accessible broadcast of NHL games for years and Tiger Woods’ comment makes perfect sense. Generally speaking, the televised NHL product in the U.S. is garbage and most sports news shows barely mention daily NHL results. Access to games also continues to be a problem for many fans.
Regarding fan development, the NHL receives another failing grade. Yes, team initiatives to attract fans are decent, but they require much more league-wide fan initiatives to help draw people into their buildings. The NHL’s public relations department is a media relations department and does very little to address the concerns of the paying and viewing customers.
My solution to improve on-ice product development sees the NHL creating a product lab. The league should acquire an old arena and dedicate this building to improving the game. This will allow the NHL to privately test new initiatives including camera angles, entertainment enhancements and improvements to facility equipment. The practice of testing new things in the American League is no longer sufficient. The NHL should allocate two percent of its gross revenues (approximately $50 million) to annual lab costs for on-ice product development.
My long-term solution to improve marketing and broadcasting becomes so much easier once the on-ice product development lab is in place and results are unveiled. Over time, major U.S. sports news outlets will begin recognizing the new NHL and massive free exposure from daily coverage will follow. In the short-term, the NHL should make every attempt to package the much better Canadian televised product and export it to the U.S. (read more HERE). Furthermore, an entirely new philosophy should be adopted by the NHL on how it deals with the media. There is room for great improvement here.
A new VP of fan relations should be hired by the NHL – someone who can engage in meaningful communications with the most important stakeholder in this game. Surely, this is an investment that the league can afford.
We all possess the greatest game on the planet and it’s time to care for it and showcase it properly. The fans are doing their part.
The co-founder of the NHL Fans' Association, Jim Boone is the chief operating officer for the Canadian Resident Matching Service and the president of Litnets Inc.