It's time to abandon the Bettman Plan

For about 15 years the NHL has been doing everything it can to gain a larger American fan base. It moved two Canadian teams to the U.S. and rapidly expanded from 21 teams to 30 teams with the main purpose of bringing hockey to the U.S. south and becoming more of a national sport. There are now teams in Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, Tampa, Nashville, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim and San Jose and aside from maybe Dallas and San Jose, who have had some success, all have been relative failures in attracting significant numbers of new fans. The NHL has utilized glowing pucks, changed rules, went to 4-on-4 overtime hockey, brought in the shootout, cracked down on fighting, cracked down on hooking, cracked down on obstruction, cracked down on hooking again, put regular season and playoff games on in the afternoon, cracked down on hooking and obstruction again, shut down the league for a full season so those new small market teams in the U.S. can better compete financially, and are now even talking about bringing in crazy rounded bubble nets all in the hopes of building a bigger American audience. But Instead of generating a bigger American audience TV coverage has been demoted from the all sports network ESPN, to Versus which has limited availability across much of the country. On top of that NBC pays nothing to broadcast a handful of regular season and playoff games, the TV ratings are dismal, and the few fans that do exist and want to watch hockey get shafted when NBC decides not to show overtime of a semi-finals series clinching game so it can show an hour of pre-horse race coverage.

It is time for the NHL owners to realize that Gary Bettman’s master plan of ‘if you expand, they will watch’ has not worked, is not working, and will not likely ever work. It is time to realize that the NHL has a better hope of growing their fan base in cities like Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and even Columbus or in a new market like Portland or Seattle than in Nashville, Miami, Carolina and Phoenix. You can have a Stanley Cup winning team in Carolina or one of the best, most entertaining teams to watch in Nashville but the new fans they generate pales in comparison to the new fan interest that has been generated in Buffalo now that a quality, stable franchise exists or in Pittsburgh now that that franchise is getting better on the ice and looking more stable off the ice. If Buffalo and Pittsburgh can generate huge new fan interest in those smaller American cities, just imagine how many new fans could be created if Chicago or Boston got a better product on the ice or started marketing their franchises better. The sooner the NHL begins to realize that the future of the NHL in the U.S. is in Boston and Chicago and St. Louis and not in Miami or Nashville or Phoenix the better.

The NHL needs to understand that there is nothing wrong with being a regional (i.e. northern U.S., Canada) sport, and you can even get national TV deals when the majority of your audience is regional, and then grow from there. NASCAR is a perfect example. For the most part it is a regional sport with the majority of their events in the south and with the majority of their fans in the south, but lat time I checked they have some pretty good TV contracts and are now in the process of expanding their region. The NHL is trying to do it the other way around and it is failing miserably. There is no reason why if you gained enough interest in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minnesota, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and maybe even a new market like Seattle that one of the major networks would be interested in broadcasting hockey. No offence to Nashville or North Carolina but these aren’t exactly major TV markets when compared to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, or Chicago. Just increasing interest 10% in each of those cities will do far more good than doubling or tripling the interest in Nashville. But unfortunately through the NHL’s misguided vision NHL in Chicago has been all but destroyed, Boston seems to be following the same path, and even Detroit is starting to have trouble selling out playoff games. It is time the NHL changed course and started focusing on promoting the game in traditional hockey markets and getting rid of the gimmickry used to promote the game to non-fans who aren’t really interested in being fans.

Edit: Dan Wetzel has a similar story about the NHL possibily making changes to playoff OT rules against the interest of the traditional hockey fan.

Posted in NHL

This article has 17 Comments

  1. I know it’s not a big TV market, but when Carolina has a better gate than 50% of the league, can you be that hard on the market? In a year in which they didn’t even make the playoffs?

  2. First off, Carolina had a boost of about 1800 fans per game this year over last which is a direct result of last years success. Lets see how they do next season. But yes, Carolina did OK this year but no, they don’t have a huge fan base nor are they a high revenue club. They also don’t generate any fan interest outside of Carolina. Carolina winning the Stanley Cup did very little for the NHL. Chicago or Boston or New York or Anaheim would have a much larger positive impact. Carolina is not going to make or break the NHL or deliver a big national TV contract, even if they could sell out twice over at double their current ticket price.

  3. Great article, David. Succintly summarizes what most of us are feeling.

    Chicago and Los Angelas are interesting franchises, well worth looking at in their own right, because they’ve been so horrendous for so long due to mismanagement and shortsightedness. I agree with you that greater success in one of the US’s biggest markets would do wonders for the league (as has New York’s greater success, and as did Gretzky going to LA). I wonder if the league would be able to simply crack down on team owners simply being stupid, as is the case in Chicago, rather than selling out their existing fanbase in the hopes that somewhere in the US someone doesn’t have anything to do with their Saturday afternoon.

  4. Chicago is particularly interesting because unlike LA, hockey was once a huge sport in Chicago. In the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s Chicago had a good team and very good fan support, far better than the Bulls. But then everything went downhill. The Blackhawks started going cheap and trading off some of their big name players (Roenick, Belfour, etc.) and the on ice product diminished. At the same time there moved a significant portion of their games onto pay per view dramatically decreasing exposure to the casual fan. And if that weren’t bad enough, Michael Jordan came to town and became the biggest athlete in the city, the country, and maybe the world. Those three factors quickly turned the franchise from front page news to second tier coverage in the sports section. Unlike Los Angeles, Chicago has been a top hockey city and bringing that back will do far more for the NHL than getting Nashville to support their team.

  5. Interesting that you include Dallas as a good market for hockey. What has Dallas had that Phoenix and Nashville have not? The benefit of time. When the Stars got there, they didn’t have much of a fan base. But, here’s how it works. Youth hockey programs start to fire up (a prerequisite of any city getting a team). Kid gets interested. Parent get dragged to kid’s games. Parent begins to understand the game a bit and recognizes how great it is. Parent buys ticket to NHL game. You people want it all to happen overnight. No, it takes 15 years.

    Also, I fail to understand how a stupid owner in Chicago is Bettman’s fault. What exactly would you have Bettman do about it?

    And, tossing Detroit’s attendance problems into this mix is simply an argument looking for a problem. Try laying off 35% of the Toronto area workforce and see how many tickets go unused at Leafs games.

  6. The Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, a year after Tampa joined the league and the same year Florida and Anaheim joined the NHL. Nashville has been in the NHL since 1998 so it is not like they haven’t had a chance to build a fan base. Despite having a very entertaining team and some of the cheapest tickets in the NHL they can only draw ~15,000 fans per game. After 9 seasons they need to be better than that.

    There is only so much Bettman can do about stupid owners but he can make recommendations to them not to limit exposure by putting the majority of hockey games on pay per view. He can also not ruin the game of hockey by over expanding, changing rules every what seems to be every 2 months, and generally not caring one iota about the real hockey fans or the history of the game.

    Detroit has a population of ~5 million people with another couple hundred thousand right across the border in Windsor. Even if the unemployment rate was 35% (which it is not), that still leaves over 3 million employed people (or families of employed people) to draw from which is greater than the population of Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Ottawa combined but all those teams managed to sell out their playoff games.

  7. I had the misfortune of watching the Sabres/Sens game on Saturday in Chicago. Despite being in fairly large sports bar (over 50 TV screens), my wife and I were the only ones watching most of the hockey (a small group of guys did watch a bit). (The manager apologized several times when the #@%$ horse racing pre-empted a mere overtime, but I didn’t even think of asking to change it to Versus.)

    Now, the Sox were at Wrigley, and it was a gorgeous day, but considering another TV was playing a NCAA track meet and was getting more eyeballs, it was clear to me that the NHL is in trouble in the States.

    Go back to the 21 team league, even if some of them have to be in Europe…

  8. Hockey is a regional sport in the United States – regional in the sense that people mostly only follow their own team. The playoffs take such a long time that casual fans just can’t maintain interest for that long – they take two months to play.

    NASCAR is a poor example because it is an event, not a series of games. It’s not like someone is going to watch one race and not watch another because their favorite driver isn’t involved – all the same guys are all in the same races.

    Buffalo and Pittsburgh are generating huge interest, but guess what? Buffalo is still going to stay under the revenue-sharing threshhold, effectively ending their chances to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders down the road (they will have next year and that’s it), and Pittsburgh had to strike an 11th hour deal to get a new arena – their current arena was constructed before any current NHL player was born. Attendance isn’t everything – nor are television ratings.

    In smaller markets, the NHL does best where it doesn’t compete with basketball.

    I think it’s serious revisionist history to oppose all but the Atlanta and Columbus expansions – one of which has been successful. The NHL was a hot sport in 1994 – everything was going right for it. It just couldn’t sustain that momentum.

    Get hockey back in Chicago and Boston? How do you propose to do that – fire their owners? Those guys own the team and can do with it what they like.

  9. Well, you didn’t talk about Anaheim and Florida in the original article and in fact, cited LA as a place the NHL should focus. And, I’m not sure what your point is in mentioning Tampa; their attendance was fantastic this year.

    As far as Detroit goes, the whole economy is in the pits. It has the highest unemployment rate of any city in the country aside from New Orleans. That effects all manners of commerce in the city. People who have jobs may well be concerned about losing their jobs and hockey just isn’t a priority. It doesn’t mean they don’t like it.

    I know Canadians feel shat upon and I truly wish a team would relocate to a reasonable market in CA (as a coincidence Balsillie is rumoured to have an agreement to purchase the Preds), but just show a little patience, please.

  10. Here are some average attendance figures for the season:

    Thrashers 16238
    Ducks 16365
    Panthers 15238
    Preds 15260
    Canes 17387
    Yotes 14988
    Tampa 19877

    Not much wrong with 4 of the 7 especially compared with:

    Here are a couple of ‘traditional markets’

    Isles 12866
    Pens 16464

  11. All of those other teams have new, or fairly new, arenas. It is common knowledge that the Pens and Isles have by far the worst arenas in the NHL. The capacity of the Penguins arena is 17, 132 so they are not far off selling out and they finished the season with 10 straigh sell outs. The Isles have a pretty good TV contract. A bigger concern is probably the Washington Capitals who average 12886.

    My point is, in general, the ‘new’ markets, largely in the south, are struggling to gain a significant fan base. It looks like Nashville is going to move now and I would not be surprised if one or two others move.

    As for Detroit and their economy let me point out that Tigers attendance seems to be doing just fine up 36% from last year and the Pistons seem to be doing OK. It is not just about the economy, it is about sports fans preferring basketball and baseball.

  12. no, David, it’s also about a major highway in Detroit being closed for night construction, and Joe Louis’s inconveinent location.

    That, and Joe Louis is much older than the Palace and Comerica Park. Also, Detroit fans have grown tired of the 1st round losses and just expect their team to be in at least the 2nd round every year.

  13. I think that ultimately the market will take care of many of the problems facing the league. The only thing the league can do is screw up relocation when franchises fold. If the league forces Balsillie to move the Preds to Kansas City then Bettman deserves to get lambasted. Balsillie is a highly successful businessman and Gary Bettman is not. Let Balsillie spend his money and move the franchise to a location he thinks will be successful. Odds are good he has a better idea how to run a business than Bettman does.

    Bill Wirtz has threatened to sell the Blackhawks. He should shut the hell up and get that deal done. He is a terrible owner who still gets killed financially even with the salary cap he pushed for. If Nashville is worth $220 million the Blackhawks have to be worth close to $350-400 million. That’s a win-win-win: Wirtz finally gets to make some money, the value of NHL franchises rises, and Chicago possibly gets an owner who has a freaking clue how to put together a successful hockey franchise.

    The economy is part of the problem in Michigan, but the Red Wings grossly overcharged for tickets. You can get decent tickets to Tigers and Pistons games for less than $50. Godawful Standing room only tickets at Joe Louis Arena were like $100+. That’s just stupid. Lower prices and Detroit sells out every playoff game. Fact. The team cut their payroll in half so they can surely afford to charge much less for tickets.

    Phoenix is probably the next franchise after Nashville to get moved. They have been bleeding money and have little to no fan support or coroporate support. I can see moving them to Vegas as it is the fastest-growing city and it doesn’t have a professional sports team. Supposedly the heads of many of the gaming entities there have guaranteed the NHL they’d purchase lots of season tickets. That’s exactly what the NHL needs and is part of the reason why Nashville hasn’t been able to make money. No corporate support.

    The league needs to court Daryl Katz and get him a franchise. The Oilers group didn’t want to sell but there have to be other owners like Craig Leopold who are realizing that owning an NHL franchise wasn’t everything they thought it would be and would like to make some money by selling their franchise.

    Let the market do its thing. When you try to dictate what the market will bear is when things really start to go haywire.

  14. The league needs to court Daryl Katz and get him a franchise.

    The guy the league really needs to court is Mark Cuban. Like him or hate him (and he is controversial) he would bring some much needed attention and legitimacy to the NHL, especially within many U.S. media outlets. He’d do more for marketing the NHL than anything Bettman has done.

  15. David,

    Yep, I agree. I actually posted something along those lines at my blog when there was talk of selling/moving the Penguins. Being a native of Pennsylvania he would have been a perfect owner. I mean the Pens owned by Mark Cuban, with Mario Lemieux involved in some capacity, and Sid Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal? ESPN wouldn’t be able to keep them off air even if they wanted to. That would have been a home run in terms of publicity.

  16. Las Vegas will not get a professional franchise. They couldn’t keep an IHL team afloat – there’s just so many entertainment options in that city that pro sports cannot compete. You go to Vegas to do things you can’t do at home.

    Who says Balsille will make money with this move – I doubt it. I’ve heard it’s to keep his best employees in the Ontario area. The problem with sports franchise ownership is that too often they aren’t run like a business – they’re the wealthy man’s toy or diversion, the reason he became rich.

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