Friday, May 23, 2008

Beginning To See The Light

Gary Bettman finally realizes that his true goal should be To Make Fans Love Hockey (WSJ-sub req):

As the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings face off in the Stanley Cup finals, which start Saturday, Mr. Bettman, 55 years old, is that rare top executive who was behind the wheel when his business went over a cliff and now has the opportunity to put it back together. He is doing so by making a classic management choice: Instead of obsessing over growth, he is concentrating on keeping the league's existing customers happy.

What a novel concept! I await Bettman's forthcoming apology for the years that he did spend obsessing over growth and damn near completely ruining the game.

Mr. Bettman moves quickly, whether he is striding across his office to pull a book off a shelf or fetching a cookie for his wife on the other side of a Madison Square Garden luxury suite. He grew up in Queens, N.Y., and even in one-on-one conversation, he often speaks as though he is yelling on a street corner.

Mr. Bettman made his name as the bulldog general counsel for the National Basketball Association.

This is the root cause of the troubles with the Bettman administration. He was a basketball guy brought in to "fix" the NHL.

The problem was (and is) that what works for the NBA does not necessarily work for the NHL. Basketball is a simple sport: put the ball in the hoop.

I would imagine that the vast majority of all Americans across the country have at one time or another shot a ball at a hoop be it in a gym, on a playground, or in a driveway. By contrast, only a small fraction have ever laced up skates to hit the ice and even a smaller fraction have ever thrown a stick and puck into the mix.

If an average American happens across an NBA playoff game on TV, they will have a basic understanding of what's going on. They won't appreciate all the nuances obviously, but they'll know that this team is trying to put the ball in this basket and that team is trying to stop them without committing a foul.

Again contrast that to the NHL. Those of us who grew up with the sport fail to appreciate how complicated the game can seem to a newcomer. The most common question I hear from novice hockey fans is, "Why did they blow the whistle?" Offsides, icing, goalies freezing the puck, and especially penalties are often difficult to explain.

This is why Bettman's plan to grow the sport by attracting legions of new fans in non-hockey areas was doomed to failure. In the United States, hockey will always be a sport with limited appeal. Rather than trying to appeal to the masses, the NHL would be much better served by working within its limits and better serving those that already appreciate the game.

If I was running the NHL, I would be pursing expansion of a sort. Expansion back into Canadian cities like Winnipeg and Quebec City that once hosted NHL franchises. After that, I might look at smaller cities in American markets where hockey is known. Instead of trying to duplicate the other major pro sports leagues in the US, the NHL should try to come up with a scaled down model that allows them to put teams into towns that will support them rather than pushing into new areas in a futile attempt to build national appeal.

The truth of the matter is that hockey is and always will be a niche sport. There's nothing wrong with that as long as those managing the sport understand and accept that. It took a long time (too long), but it looks like that reality has finally dawned on Gary Bettman.

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