Hockey fans can hurt the NHL in a number of ways and the poolie impact cannot be overlooked. (Getty Images)
As the NHL grew from a $2.1 billion industry to a $3.3 billion industry in just seven years, fantasy hockey grew at an even faster pace. In fact, fantasy sports in general grew at a phenomenal rate over the past decade - 35 million people in North America played fantasy sports in 2012 (per the FSTA).
Did the fantasy hockey industry grow because NHL hockey's popularity grew? In a word - no. The Internet gets credit for that. Between 2004 and 2012, the Internet went from “this cool thing that has been in a lot of homes for a couple of years,” to “everybody has the Internet and has been using it for years.”
The number tools available to fantasy sports enthusiasts have increased accordingly. At one time we had a newspaper laid out on the kitchen table, the sheets for your hockey pool spread out around it, and a pen in your hand. An hour later, voila - you have your weekly standings complete.
Today, we click a button. Done.
Online league managers track everything. The work is done for you instantly. Not only that, but more statistics are available to give a sense of realism and there are 100 different ways to look at them. In fantasy hockey, you can quickly find out who a player has been playing on a line with (here), rank players based on certain stat categories, analyze who a player played with when he picked up his points and thousands more tools that would take forever to list, especially when you start looking into advanced stats. At this point, you can feel as close to being an actual NHL GM as Brian Burke (minus the salary).
There is a huge appeal to this, especially when it's convenient. After all, you're at work on a computer. It takes less than a second to click on a bookmark and see how your fantasy team is doing. Taking a five-minute break from doing what you should be doing at the office and setting your rosters instead is very tempting.
No longer do you have to ask around to try to get together 10 or 12 friends - and friends of friends - to form a league. Today you can go online and join a league from a forum you participate in, or via a site such as Yahoo! and join a random league. Five minutes after you decide to get into fantasy hockey, you're in a league. And later you're having so much fun that you decide to join another. Leagues are breeding like rabbits.
The convenience, realism and availability of leagues has spurred unbelievable growth in the fantasy hockey industry, which in turn has spurred the growth of the sport itself. A casual fan will watch 25 games per season on TV and maybe show up at the arena for a game. A heavy hockey fan will watch about 75 games in a season, usually involving his or her favorite team. He or she would go to a handful of games or even have season tickets.
But a fantasy hockey owner will take this to a new level. Loyalties are no longer exclusively devoted to a favorite team. A fantasy hockey owner will watch any game that has one of his players playing. Fantasy hockey turns a non-fan into a casual fan, a casual fan into a heavy hockey fan…and a heavy hockey fan into an obsessed fan. The same rule that applies to all fantasy sports applies to this one. A person is more involved in a game if he or she is familiar with the players and has a vested interest in how they perform.
This doesn't end with television, either. The NHL benefits online in an even bigger way. On any given day, a regular fan may go to NHL.com and read an article. Maybe they'll check the scores.
A fantasy hockey owner will give NHL.com at least 10 page views per day. They'll check the scores several times in the evening and they'll click the scoring summaries and box scores. They'll do a bit of research by sifting through the extensive stats section.
This is where the NHL could be in a bit of trouble from fans. Aside from the obvious, that is. I had noted recently on Twitter: "NHL and NHLPA - if you scare off the hardcore Fantasy Hockey poolies, you're sunk." The response that I got within minutes tells the story. Here is an excerpt:
Based on that reaction, I added another Tweet: "For each keeper league that cancels season, 10-20 people won't be checking NHL.com 3-4x daily when season starts." Again, the reaction was quick - and in full agreement:
This is reaction from one instance, one moment of one day in which a few people happened to see my tweet. What would the reaction be if the millions of fantasy hockey owners saw the tweet? Would 10,000 people respond to say their league has already canceled the season? The trouble the NHL and its players are in with their fan base runs much deeper than anger from those who miss NHL hockey. It's fantasy hockey that drives page views. So canceling another season would be devastating to the league.
For my part, my website (DobberHockey.com) is down about 70 percent in terms of page views. Recovery, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the CBA resolution. But the NHL's growth will go hand-in-hand with fantasy hockey's recovery. The league would be wise to pay attention.
Darryl Dobbs’ Fantasy Pool Look is an in-depth presentation of player trends, injuries and much more as it pertains to rotisserie pool leagues. Also, get the top 300 roto-player rankings on the first of every month in THN’s Fantasy section. Do you have a question about fantasy hockey? Send it to the Fantasy Mailbag.
Want more fantasy insider information or to contact The Dobber? Check out dobberhockey.com or follow him on Twitter at @DobberHockey.