The Florida Panthers made it to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2000, but are unable to build on that momentum with their fans. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
A major struggle the NHL has faced in its history is transitioning from a niche sport to a big-league show that attracts fans from markets that can’t sustain an outdoor rink. But the biggest reason this has been such a mammoth struggle is, well, the NHL itself.
In the “non-traditional” hockey markets, the option to play while growing up isn’t as popular or as easy to come by as it is in Canadian or northern American destinations. Many of these folks have been introduced to hockey by the NHL’s charge into their backyard. We’ve heard commissioner Gary Bettman talk endlessly over the years about “growing the game” and attempting to push the league closer to the front of the mind of casual American sports fans.
The problem is, the idea of “growing the game” is always trumped by the owners’ goal of profit certainty. The NHL’s tactic of locking out its players time and again to reach this goal regresses any efforts to become relevant in big-league America.
Seven years ago, when the league basically wrote its CBA, it didn't even take the time to evaluate the long-term effects of optimistic revenue growth on its small market teams, which were devastating. By the time that deal ran out, Atlanta had moved, Phoenix went bankrupt and budget teams were being forced to spend more on payroll than was allowed by even the biggest spenders at the start of the agreement. Now, to reel in the excess they allowed to happen again, the owners are once more closing their doors and shutting out the sprouting southern fan bases. Last time, Atlanta was robbed of an All-Star game and Tampa Bay couldn’t cheer on its first Stanley Cup team. This time it’s Columbus and Los Angeles in the same positions. That’s no way to grow the game’s fan base.
The suggestion that some owners wouldn’t mind starting the season until after American Thanksgiving or even New Year’s - when it can supposedly garner more attention - even runs in contrast with game-growing. This defeatist mindset submits to the other three major sports without even attempting to challenge them. It’s this mindset that allowed the league to construct a labor agreement where major growth actually stung and somehow put it in this dire circumstance. It has held back the owners from acknowledging the probability of revenue growth and from using that knowledge to strike a fair deal with the players.
The owners either don’t believe in their own product or are holding the game hostage for nothing else than an immediate payout. How does either promote the game to new fans?
Now, hockey has grown in the U.S. in the sense that prospects from Texas, California and other non-traditional places are advancing to higher and higher levels and the American program has been better off for it. But in a recent THN.com poll that asked readers if they had ever played minor hockey, more than half of the respondents said no – so the fact more legitimate prospects are sprouting from a certain area doesn’t automatically translate to greater interest in the NHL among casual fans.
And make no mistake, the NHL’s ultimate goal always revolves around the bottom line - bolstering the grassroots game is a nice peripheral bonus, but not the ultimate goal. It is a business, after all.
For all the work the league has done to boost its presence south of the border, it seems oblivious to the fact it’s strangling the progress it has committed more than 20 years towards by arrogantly ruling with an iron fist. The majority of Canadian fans will always come back, but the league and its commissioner had to fight tooth and nail for its American audience. Now the league has embarrassed itself and shutdown again to involve itself in a series of negotiations that further undermine Bettman’s American aspirations the longer they drag on.
The owners care more about profits than growing the game, even though growing the game would lead to more profits.
The NHL is plagued by shortsighted leaders who preach growth but keep the game in the background so long as they safely end up in the black.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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