Why the NHL is Dead: A Response

Last week, some dude most of us have never met wrote an obituary about the National Hockey League. Here's the thing about writers: we all think our opinion is important. Sometimes it is; but usually it's not. In this case, Sean Crowe — who, for whatever reason, refers to himself as SeanMC (are you a DJ?) — offered his take on the NHL's demise, and argued that something must be done to resuscitate this mortal game. It's true; the NHL has assassinated the last of its remaining prominence.

Although many readers' comments boast the obvious — like one observed, "This story would've been more credible if it was written in 2006" — the truth is that Crowe's "opinion piece" is shaky. Opinion columns aren't forums for writers to make claims that aren't factually based, nor are they sheltered from criticism merely because they are opinion. Ironically, the Master of Ceremonies inks lengthy tangents with various data about TV ratings and attendance towards the end of the comments section. Which is funny because there's a better chance of someone finding Versus on his cable box than locating the statistical basis of his "opinion."

Aside from SeanMC's flawed suggestions of how an average fan would rank major sports, the column would've been slightly more credible had he deviated from the predictable Sidney Crosby/Alex Ovechkin reference. Great, they're good; we get it. They're also only two among almost 950 professional hockey players on 30 payrolls across North America. And the TV ratings are lousy. And FOX had glowing pucks. We get that, too. Some originality wouldn't hurt.

It's not that Sean Emcee's judgment is irrelevant, it's that he constantly returns to numero uno: I. You know what people care about less than the NHL, Sean? You. (And me, for that matter.) People care about the argument being made, and the figures that support your opinion. It doesn't matter that you're "not trying to bash the NHL"; what matters are the "major issues facing a struggling league" (i.e. the topic, not yourself). Because the sad truth is that even in 2008, many of the same obstacles still impede the NHL's strives for importance.

Yes, not many people are watching the playoffs on TV; yes, attendance isn't comparable to the NFL or MLB; and yes, the first-round has been entertaining and Crosby and Ovechkin are "exciting" and "prolific." No one doubts any of this. But let's discuss why hockey hasn't been popularized Stateside.

Since the strikes in 1992 and 1994-1995, and the lockout in 2004-2005, the NHL has lost roughly two billion dollars ($1.8 billion by 2005). Expansion was rampant in the 90s, diminishing resources that could have been invested to cook simmering markets like, say, Boston. Attempting to inflate its worth, the NHL allowed teams to relocate to places like Phoenix, instead of fostering development to keep the Jets in Winnipeg. (This isn't always bad — Hartford to Carolina worked out.) Hockey was not always unpopular, but it has always been a niche market. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about how to broaden the scope of the game among those charged with doing so.

So, what can be done to reinvigorate wider interest in the NHL?

One concept: retraction. The NHL doesn't need 30 teams. It would be better served by folding six to eight (if not more) franchises. What teams would they be? That's debatable. Start with those with the lowest average attendance over a particular period — a decade, 15 years, whatever. Or perhaps examine total revenue generated. If the amount made is less than the amount spent, consider closing the club. Set benchmarks for organizations to meet. If they don't comply, then there will be consequences. (It's called capitalism.) The NHL hasn't resembled a strong business recently. By shaping the revenue sharing policy accordingly, a smaller league would extract more value from each dollar made to use on everything from salaries and marketing to building renovations and scouting.

This would concentrate talent, making each team more competitive. Each roster would be filled with more Crosbys than Averys. The greater the level of competition and skill, the greater the publicity. Fans in Miami would be forced to turn on the tube to see the best skaters play. That may mean closing the doors on historic teams, including the original six. (That's you, Chicago — who in the three post-lockout seasons has ranked 29th, 29th, and 19th in league attendance).

But sports evolve. If Commissioner Gary Bettman can expand, he has the power to retract. (Rumors abound involving a round of new teams in the coming years, unfortunately; discussion has hovered above Las Vegas.) Retracting even one team would garner more press than the NHL has seen on its best day.

(A personal anecdote: I live in Washington, DC, and since the Capitals began surging in the second quarter of the year when Bruce Boudreau was hired, tickets to Verizon Center have come at a premium. Two weeks ago, with the Tampa Bay Lightning game sold out and the Caps needing to win out to take the Southeast Division and make the playoffs, nosebleed seats normally costing $35 dollars were going for over $80. Why? Demand. The Caps are competitive and have a deep roster supporting Ovechkin. This could happen in other cities too — like Chicago, where attendance jumped from 12,727 per game last year to 16,814 in 2008, a 19.9% climb. Why? Talent: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane recaptured this storied city's fans. Hiring Chi-town legend Denny Savard as coach may have helped. They've (re)evolved.)

Another idea: shorten the season. Eighty-two games and the postseason create a laborious season — it stretches longer than most school years. It's not easy for even the most emphatic fans to follow, much less any whose potential interest is casual. The National Basketball Association suffers a similar criticism. Shorten the season to 62 games and begin the playoffs in March. Unlike the Major Leagues, the NHL shouldn't shorten its first-round playoff series to best-of-five. The playoffs are when the best games happen — where players' bonus incentives and contract negotiating leverage are earned.

The NHL's woes are not new, but perhaps the repairs should be. It's going to take time to fix them. If that results in the league and some of its owners losing money, then so be it. They've already lost quite a bit. The NHL might have to accept its status as a second-tier sport in terms of popularity. The verity of the situation is that the NHL will likely never be the NFL or MLB or NASCAR. But self-recognition can be helpful. The NHL might find more success by just doing what it knows: selling hockey where hockey sells. Players might have to take pay cuts so organizations can lower ticket prices and keep buildings full — which will let fan camaraderie manifest itself into team allegiance, and put more merchandise dollars into the team's pockets. There are varied ways to market the game to a larger audience if that is the NHL's objective. Still, it could be successful if it targeted its best markets and jettisoned those that are faulty.

(The NHL shouldn't emphasize the need to capture existing fans only; why not make more? I've addressed hockey's problematic costs before. If NHL clubs subsidized more youth hockey programs, kids — and parents — would be attracted to the game early on. This could be done at practice facilities where youth leagues flourish. Soccer is the world's widest played sport because of accessibility. The NHL should take note.)

Sean Crowe maintains that the NHL is dead and asks, "how do we bring it back to life?" Well, how about we start by really answering that question?

The floor is now yours...

(Full disclosure: This, too, is just my opinion. I'm fully aware that these suggestions will certainly never materialize under Bettman. But I still support them. They are also not the most original alterations — but more so than trumpeting stale tunes about ratings and the NHL falling from "top four" grace. The point? Don't just complain. That is why I urge you to make your own — reasonable — recommendations.)

Comments and Conversation

April 23, 2008


i understand the idea of contraction. don’t support it, but i understand it.
There is no way you are seriously suggesting that the league “evolve” towards losing an original 6 team, right? To contract Chicago?
You mention closing the doors on the Hawks in one paragraph and then in the next offer up how much better they are doing … ?
You also cite the young talent as helping the hawks to get an attendance/interest boost … what about the death of wirtz? the home games on tv for the first time in years?

April 23, 2008

jeff dinunzio:

Yes, the point is that changes can be made—and if teams don’t meet certain benchmarks, they be folded. Chicago is a perfect example of how young, condensed talent can revive interest. The Capitals are another example. But surely you’re not suggesting that an original six team that isn’t pulling its weight in attendance, revenue, etc—or in the standings for that matter—should receive a pass just because it’s an original six team? That’s like never trading in your first car on a more reliable new one because it was your first car—even though it sits on cinderblocks in the driveway. It makes no sense. If one team succeeds more than another, so be it.

May 3, 2008


I think most of you missed the point of my column.

It wasn’t to say I hate the NHL, it wasn’t to say it’s gone and never coming back, I was merely pointing out a simple fact: People aren’t paying attention to the NHL.

If you aren’t an NBA fan, you know the playoffs are going on right now, but if you aren’t an NHL fan, you have no idea the playoffs are going on right now.

Outside the die-hards, nobody is watching. Worse, nobody is caring.

The die-hards are letting their love for the game cloud their vision. I love hockey, but there are problems (as you pointed out).

The Versus thing killed them. ESPN ignores the NHL, and in turn, so do most of the average sports fans. It’s turned into a niche sport.

How about saving the sport by getting rid of Bettman and getting the sport on a real network? A network that people actually watch? A network that will attract viewers to the NHL rather than a network who’s using the NHL to attract viewers?

It’d be a start….

May 3, 2008


Also, it’s SeanMC because that was my old AOL handle back in high school. I started writing under that and never stopped.

The MC are just initials…

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