hit more fairways. make more putts. avoid the hazards. play by the rules.

Posted on Thursday 17 February 2005

Gary Bettman finally got his wish, although I doubt he’ll admit he had it. Now that the owners have cancelled the season perhaps they will examine the strategy which have led the NHL to the brink of extinction. Bettman convinced the owners that they could quickly expand into southern cities with no hockey history or tradition; that has led directly to this disaster.

In cities like Miami, Tampa, Dallas, Phoenix, LA, San Jose, and here in Washington there are not large enough core fans to support the franchises. Whoever heard of empty seats in arenas for playoff games? Yet I’ve seen it with my own eyes here and in Tampa. With attendance low concession revenues are below expectations, and with a small fan base there is scant demand for paraphernalia. Even personable Ted Leonsis, a marketing guru if ever there was one, couldn’t boost attendance at Caps games.

The owners tried paying outrageous salaries to a few star players in order to boost their teams’ performance and raise attendance, but that only resulted in a lopsided league and unrealistic salary expectations among players. First the Caps, then the Rangers, overpaid Jaromir Jagr so badly that they couldn’t afford to hire enough decent players to support him.

Hockey also must deal with a lack of TV revenue. Not only does the game itself appeal to a smaller core audience, but the game is difficult to watch on TV and can’t hold the attention of the casual viewer. Part of the game’s appeal is speed, but that same pace makes it hard to follow on TV. There’s also this conundrum about hockey: the puck is small, and can only be seen on TV when the camera shot is tight; but by focusing so closely on the puck most of what else is going on gets missed. Imagine a televised NFL game if all you saw was the guy with the ball. And Bettman’s new TV contract guarantees no revenue to the league.

Don’t get me wrong. The players’ complicity in the debacle should not go unnoticed. They have clung to their salaries apparently without regard to the reality of their market. They are hockey players, not NBA, NFL or even MLB players. They compete in a smaller market, and cannot reasonably expect to make what their counterparts in other leagues make. Their salaries are outrageous, but only in the context of their market. And after years of saying they would never agree to a salary cap-style payroll system, player’s union head Bob Goodenow caved in at the last minute but stopped short of caving entirely by sticking to a figure that the owners would never agree to.

If it were up to me I’d fire both Bettman and Goodenow and start over. And I mean start over with a new league. The NHL has become insignificant, beyond a small core audience that undoubtedly has gotten smaller since September. And insignificant may be worse than dead.

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