Sunday, May 24, 2009

NHL: Nothing good happens after June 5th

These are the days when you wish someone would plant a bug in Jim Balsillie's ear to underwrite a pro hockey league which would offer something different, like a snowball's chance in hell of deciding a champion before the end of May.

There is little need to join the chorus that includes Michael Farber at Sports Illustrated, Cam Cole at the Vancouver Sun and Larry Brooks at the New York Post, who got off on some of the better rants about the Stanley Cup final not starting until June 5. Far be it to point out any members of the press corps, especially those from Canadian outlets, could always ask their bosses to let them pass on covering the final and devote less coverage to hockey (fat chance).

The questions really are what you do as a fan who's followed it all season (not watch the final?) and how late the final could run in 2010, when the Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver will run from Feb. 16-28.

On the first question, Hockey in June does not work from a fan's perspective, never has, never will. Three years ago, CBC lost a million viewers between Games 1 and 2 of the Edmonton-Carolina final (it went seven games, which brought casual followers back).

The games can be very well-played, but to borrow a phrase from Mark Moore's book Saving The Game, the players are not on the hook if it's hard for an observer to get inspired. It is weird to wake up on a gorgeous Sunday in May and realize the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings are playing a third-round game that afternoon. The day is much better suited to going on a long walk than being indoors watching hockey. Nevertheless, the NHL blunders on:
"If the series begins June 5 and goes seven, it would be the latest-finishing Stanley Cup final in a non-Olympic year since 1999, when Brett Hull's toe-in-the-crease goal won it for Dallas at 1:30 a.m. Eastern, on June 20 — after which I distinctly recall NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell telling me the league simply had to find a way to end the hockey season before June." — Cam Cole, Vancouver Sun
The reality is only with the NHL do you have long-time followers saying, "I just wish the season could be over with." Baseball still manages to wrap up in October more often than not. The NBA improved its product by eliminating the long layoffs between games (David Stern also made a good deal with TNT so the Association wouldn't have to Gary-rig its schedule to suit a broadcast network).

This has the air of "renovating the restaurant you don't own," but there's a common-sense solution. The league could shorten training camp and pre-season and start the regular season around Sept. 20. The salary cap dictates who is going to make the team. The players have have personal trainers to help them stay in shape. The four-week training camp is just a holdover from the old days when players spent their summers pounding beers and looking for a piece of strange. The teams would save money, which heavens knows a few such as Atlanta and Tampa Bay wouldn't mind.

Meantime, there is the fun question of how late the season might run in 2009-10. The NHL's TV contract with NBC is up. That might eliminate the possibility of once again, as Farber put it "ben(ding) over backwards to plant a big wet one on the backside of the Peacock." ESPN would be more accommodating. That is counter-balanced by the Olympic break. Sports Business Journal reported a while ago that NHLPA boss Paul Kelly wants an even longer break that the league has in mind, so the NHLers can march in the Olympic opening ceremonies.

The point is the obvious (obvious since it was obvious three bloody seasons ago, even to a self-acknowledged master of the obvious). Nothing good happens after June 1. The NHL has to put that into practice, just as everyone eventually learns nothing good happens after 2 p.m.

The whole Winnipeg question

It deserves to be passed on. Tom Brodbeck, the City Hall columnist at the Winnipeg Sun, had the heart to break the harsh reality for all the Bring Back The Jets-Setters:
".... what it really boils down to is what owners can charge for ticket prices versus what their player salary costs are projected to be.

"It's really that simple when it comes to sustaining an NHL franchise.

"This is not the NFL or Major League Baseball, which enjoy lucrative television revenues. TV revenues for the NHL are modest.

"NHL teams rely much more on gate sales to pay the bills. And there's a huge difference between a team that can sell tickets for $50 to $70 and ones that can sell them for more than $100. A half-decent ticket for a Vancouver Canucks regular season game, for example, is $130. Is there enough jingle in the jeans of Winnipeggers to pay that kind of freight on a sustained basis?

"According to Statistics Canada, we have among the lowest average weekly wages in Canada. In 2008 only PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had lower wages than Manitoba.

"This isn't the 1990s, where you can sell $7 hockey tickets at 7-Eleven. The world of hockey has made a tectonic shift since we last had a team. And being near the bottom of the Canadian wage-earner list does not help our cause."
Again, that doesn't mean it's folly to root for a Jets revival. Brodbeck pretty much hit the nail on the head. Winnipeg is not a town of big spenders. There is kind of a warehouse mentality, which is not necessarily bad or something to be made fun of, but it's undesirable to the NHL.

Cash and the NHL; Manitoba's economics are not inviting (Tom Brodbeck, Sun Media)


Dennis P said...

You are preaching to the choir on the late start to the Cup Final. Your proposed solution, though, merely illustrates the gulf between Canadian and American fans. In Canada, we would be fine with a Sept. 20 start. In the U.S., though, the owners will do anything to avoid having home games when baseball is still going. Bad enough they have to compete with football for the first half of the season. Those early season home games are attendance death in many U.S. markets. The U.S. owners vastly prefer the later start - later the better for them. There is no way you could ever sell a Setp. 20 start to the American clubs.

MLB isn't much better -- their season keeps getting later and later, and I recall that ratings for the World Series keep slipping as a result. Bringing in the wild card playoffs without a corresponding cut in the length of the regular season was a mistake.

sager said...

They compete with baseball when it's still going and when it's just starting (March, April, May, June). It's ridiculous.

Ralph Mellanby probably thought of this a long time ago, Dennis, but what hockey needs to work on U.S. TV is a shorter season and a guaranteed 2 1/2-hour game.

krister said...

I guess I could have watched the game today but the weather was so nice I went for a ride on my motorcycle instead. What they should do is, as Sager said, cut the 81 game pre-season just to eliminate Toronto and have the final game of the real season by May 24.

Nick- NHL to Winnipeg supporter said...

Brodbeck is a dying breed of Winnipegger, one who is scared of change and anything that could distrupt the status quo. These people still claim Winnipeg is cheap despite the fact that people have been selling out the MTS Centre for every large and expensive concert that has come through there since it was built. Young Winnipeggers have plenty of disposable income due to the low cost of living and are proving that they will use it on big events. The NHL falls into that category and based on Moose games, the continuing popularity of the Jets brand, and the ability of Winnipeg to sell out expensive events consistently, I really doubt ticket price is an issue.

One thing Brodbeck does not mention is the fact the corporate support will not be an issue. The MTS Centre has sold out all of its luxury boxes this year and there is a waiting list. There is also a clause which will allow box users to renew at higher prices when the NHL comes back.

Also, if Mark Chipman believes the market can support a team, who is Brodbeck to doubt him. Chipman went on national television with Peter Mansbridge in Februrary 2008 and stated this. The lead man behind bringing back the NHL would not say this just for the sake of it, as he has been consistent in his approach all along, saying that support (corporate and regular) will not be an issue.

The truth is, Brodbeck seems to be speaking for the type of Winnipegger who won't support the new team, a type who is shrinking in volume. There are plenty of people out there who will, and there are plenty of articles highlighting this fact.

People who are closer to Chipman then Brodbeck (Ken Wiebe and Randy Turner amongst others) have both pointed out that things are inline for an NHL return sooner rather than later. Perhaps this site could mention some of those articles when they come up as well.

sager said...

Those are good points, Nick, and I certainly will post something if I see valid points. Brodbeck was going against the majority, and that's what I value.

Sports reporters in general, not referring to Ken Wiebe or Randy Turner or anyone in particularly, must be taken with a grain of salt on these matters. Typically, they're all gung-ho because it means they'll have something to cover.