Happy New Years to all of FanNation! My holidays are over unfortunately, as it was a nice break filled with the consumption of food, chocolate, and the bubbly....
But it is back to work, and seeing as how I spend most of my work time in front of my computer, it is back to writing blogs.
Like many of the sports fans out there I spent most of my day yesterday recovering from the festivities of the night before, and watching a day jam packed with sporting events. One being a full slate of NCAA Bowl games, the other being the "Winter Classic"-an outdoor NHL game held in Buffalo. While the latter was a huge success, it got me thinking about ways to improve the NHL, which brings me to today's blog.
The NHL has been in decline for awhile now, in ratings and in popularity. Marketing giants such as Nike and ESPN have jumped ship in equipment and television respectively, and small market American teams are floundering all over the board. Scoring is down yet again; with goalies once again dominating the league and leading to boring, defensive hockey games. The Salary cap, which was supposed to save the NHL, has risen to over 50 million dollars, and yet again has provided the teams with lots of money the luxury to spend it. Smaller market teams find themselves unable to spend that much, which leads to putting weak products on the ice, and thus losing fans. I could go on and on, but I must get to the point of the blog, and that is I've devised some key points for the NHL to consider in fixing their product on and off the ice.
Disclaimer: I am not a business expert, nor am I an expert on the business of Hockey. What I know is what I read and see as a fan, and these are the ideas derived from that. Please take these suggestions with a grain of salt, as that is really all they are worth.
Step 1- Admit you have a problem!
Nothing enrages me more than to listen to Gary Bettman talk endlessly about how the game is fine, and that Hockey is thriving in the small markets of the Southern U.S. Listen, I understand you are the commissioner, and that you are selling a product, but we are not stupid, and lying to us doesn't make us happy. You don't have to come out and say "The NHL is in trouble" but at least recognize some warning signs, and tell us that you are looking for ways to enhance the game. I listened to Bettman the other day on a Toronto sports radio program claim that one of his fellow owners was lying when he said 40% of revenues come from Canada. You can't fix a problem when you're in denial, and it seems that Bettman is firmly entrenched in that stance.
Step 2 - Shrink goalie equipment.
I've been saying this for a long time now, and yet it never seems to happen. Over the last decade or two, goaltending has changed dramatically. These days it is all about angles and technique, more so than athletic ability. The successful goaltenders of old were much more athletic than today's goaltenders because they had to be, they had smaller equipment. For example: lets look at a picture of Dom Hasek in his Buffalo days and compare it to J.S Gigeure today....
The picture to the right is a perfect example on why goalies are dominating the league right now. It's a pretty simple equation: playing angles + huge pads = less scoring
I know the goalies aren't a fan of this one, but somehow scoring has to go up. Either shrink the equipment, or make the nets bigger.
Step 3 - Knock the schedule down to 72 games.
This one is never going to happen, because owners won't want to give up 10 games of revenue, but I still think it is a good idea worth considering. As it stands right now, the NHL begins their regular season in October and ends roughly around the middle of April. The playoff's usually take until June to finish. For playoff teams, that's almost 9 months of hockey. If you knocked off 10 games, it would end the season a little earlier, allow players to recuperate more during the season, and inevitably lead to fresher, more exciting Hockey. Ten games may not seem like a heck of a lot, but in this age of star players playing 30 minutes a night, it would be welcome.
Step 4 - Eliminate fighting from the sport.
Now before I get into this highly debated topic, I will say first and foremost that no one likes a good scrap more than me. But I will also say that it hurts the game way more than it helps. Right now in the NHL 30 teams employ one or more roster spots for players fondly known as "goons". Their role, as they describe it, is to "protect" star players from being roughed up by the other team. Well, in today's game that is simply not the case. If you watch fights these days, it has nothing to do about protecting, it's about a show. Two goons get on the ice, yap at one another before the face-off and bam gloves are off and the two players involved may not play another shift the rest of the night. In fact, the Instigator rule makes it impossible for "goons" to protect anybody, with an immediate match penalty given to anyone who goes looking for a fight. So what are these fighters doing in the game? They don't have enough talent to play more than 4 minutes a game; the fights they get in are meaningless, so why do we give them roster spots? Why not take out fighting completely, and make way for skilled players to take the roster spots of the goons. Now some will argue that fighting makes Hockey exciting, with people going to games hoping to see a fight. For some that may be true, but if that were the case for all, wouldn't Hockey be the most popular sport in North America? The goon mentality in Hockey has long been stale, and the premise is completely wrong now. Brash move? Of course...Necessary? Maybe not...Helpful? Definitely.
Step 5 - Take whatever ESPN gives you to put your games on their network.
I don't care if they give you a bag of grain for it, do it. The NHL needs more southern exposure, that is all there is to it. NBC gave up nothing for the rights to NHL games, so why can't they do the same with ESPN? Versus isn't mainstream enough to bring in new casual fans to the sport, and ESPN definitely is. This is a no-brainer, put the NHL back on ESPN and more people will care.
Step 6 - Make the All-Star game an annual outdoor game.
I took this idea from Al Strachan from FoxSports.net because I absolutely loved it. The outdoor game was a huge success yesterday, so why not showcase the games greatest stars in the same way? You could have a revolving location that resides in the northern U.S and Canada. It could be a weekend long event, with tail-gating parties and the skills events giving the fans a chance to have a lot of fun.
Step 7 - Contract
Now this is the diciest of all 8 suggestions, and definitely the least likely of which are going to happen. By contract, I mean the NHL needs to eliminate as much as 8 teams from the league. Shut them down completely, lick their proverbial wounds, and move on. Let's face it, I could rattle off at least 10 teams in the United States that aren't doing well, and are in niche hockey markets. Bettman in his tenure as commissioner has tried unsuccessfully to tap into the Southern markets, and it has come back to bite him and the league in the arse. All we have now is an extremely diluted talent pool, and hockey teams in places where only select fans care. Last year, when the Anaheim Ducks went to the Stanley Cup finals and won, many people were asked at Disneyland if they knew about the Ducks winning it all. Most responded with "Who? Oh that's nice, I'm happy for them" So what would contraction mean? Well it would mean no more marginal NHL players; it would be the best of the best. It would also mean less travel, and wear and tear on players. Now obviously contraction would mean a lot of people would lose jobs, which is precisely why it won't happen, but it is the last resort type option that could eventually be used if this league continues to falter.
Step 8 - Relocate teams in ‘niche' markets to thriving ones.
Now if you don't want to contract, that's fine; but something needs to be done about the teams we just talked about in step 7. Why not move them up north into traditional hockey markets where people actually care? The owner of the Ottawa Senators Eugene Melnyk recently stated that roughly 40% of the leagues revenue currently comes from the six Canadian teams. That's right folks, 6 out of 30 teams are generating almost half of the NHL's revenue. With the Canadian dollar back to being relatively strong again, any team that moves north of the 49th parallel instantly becomes a cash cow. Just like I could name of 8-10 teams that aren't in great hockey markets, I could name the same amount of great hockey markets in Canada that don't have teams. There are markets in the states that are absolutely thriving (Detroit, Colorado etc.) pairing those with as many as 10-12 Canadian teams, and you'd have yourself one heck of a league.
So these are my 8 steps to fixing the NHL, some are very drastic changes, some not so much. Either way the NHL needs to do something, as they are not bringing in casual fans, and losing long-time supporters in the process.
There are of course many ideas being bounced around right now about how the league could improve. These are the eight I'm the fondest of. What are yours? Lay them out in the comments below and I will try to discuss them as much as possible with you.
Thanks for your time everyone, and enjoy the Fiesta Bowl tonight! Hopefully it will be as good as last years!