If It Ain't Fixed, Break It. Time For NHL To Adopt Plan B
If a tree falls in the middle of the forest, does any one hear? If a playoff series is conducted in a void can we hear NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hitting the floor in the middle of Manhattan?
As we told you last week at IDLM, Canadian viewership for the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs has plummeted. It’s not for a lack of good hockey. The Blackhawks/ Blues series its a classic. The Sharks elimination of the Kings was amazing. The Ducks comeback to lead the Predators is great fun to watch.
But with no Canadian teams to watch, the TV ratings have reportedly dropped by almost 70 percent on CBC, 60 percent over last year on Sportsnet’s multiple channels. The biggest loser in this cratering is the NHL crest itself.
For most of Bettman’s leadership of the league there has been an effort to replace the Hockey Night In Canada logo with the NHL shield in Canada’s affections. Polling consistently showed that Canadians (by a wide margin) were loyal to the HNIC logo and the crests of the clubs in Canada. The NHL logo? It placed well below the rest in the polling.
So the NHL created the Winter Classic games and the Heritage series to develop an NHL fan who’d watch games even if his or her favourite squad was not playing. This is the NFL way. Loyalty to a team, yes. But also to the stars of the league and the Sunday/ MondayTV showcases.
The NFL’s appointment-viewing model was Bettman’s antidote to a league defined solely by regional interests. This ambitious vision— wedded to the salary-cap concept— was the advertised reason for ruining three seasons (1994-95/ 2004-05/ 2013/14) with lockouts to produce a business model orchestrated by the head office in New York.
The New Year’s day outdoor game made small steps in that direction—largely in the U.S. In the frozen north, however, the Maple Leafs and Habs and Canucks still hold sway in the ratings. Don Cherry über alles. Still, the NHL doubled down in its new arrangement with Rogers Sportsnet to forge a new fan— a fan who wanted to watch the stars wherever they played.
To stretch the concept even further Bettman has hauled out his old chestnut— expansion— to prime the pump for greater interest in the NHL (what, the legendary Ducks/ Predators rivalry is not enough?) While it was regrettable that no Canadian teams made the playoffs this season, it just might provide an opportunity to show how the marketing efforts of the league has succeeded in making fans of the league as opposed to simply fans of the teams in Canada.
TV promotions pumped the concept of “what Canadian star playing for a U.S. team would you watch?” The April 30 draft lottery—the only shred of Canadian team news till late June— was also hyped to Canadian fans who have all seven clubs with a shot at a superstar prospect.
Which takes us back to our question If a playoff series is played in a void does anyone notice? The answer in the hockey heartland of Canada, apparently, is no. A league with little or no gambling tie-in (the NFL/ NBA and NCAA thrive on the betting business) can’t seem to get fans to care about any other teams or promotions.
This represents the massive flaw in the Bettman era. How have his stratagems made an impact on the business, beside diluting the product? The latest expansion gambit is the lamest of lame concepts to revive interest in the product. Ruining the World Cup with a fake under-23 team and a bouillabaisse of smaller European nations— another attempt to break the Canadian stranglehold on the league— further aggravates the traditional fan.
It all points at the desperate need for new leadership. There is a deep wellspring of interest and passion for the NHL product. But this latest flop shows that the management of the NHL in place since 1993 has reached its stale date. Time to move on to someone whose concepts represent something more than expansion and lockouts.
Major leaguers hearing the news that Blue Jay Chris Colabello was nicked for using PEDs had one of two reactions. 1) Glad it’s not me. Or 2) That was pretty dumb. Or both.
Don’t for a second believe Colabello’s plaintive cries of innocence about tainted supplements. Knowing the system full well he flunked both his A and B urine samples. This is not the Mike Duffy get-out-of-jail-free card.
Major-league athletes live on the frontier between “what can I get away with?” and “what will happen if I lose my job?” They don’t want to chance it that a lack of strength might cost them a job— or that a rival’s drug regimen has also gotten them the pink slip.
So don’t believe the Colabellos who claim his positive is a random error from the distributor. The end of most pro sports careers is only a bad month away. The lower the margin for error, the greater the need for “mother’s little helper” to give you an edge. In the early days of Ben Johnson, PEDs were industrial-strength bombs that turned eyeballs yellow and gave women beards. They scared the bejabbers out of everyone.
Nowadays, the drugs are more subtle. Some are disguised as treatments for ADD or emotional distress. Players know the benefits of PEDs better than does the public. Some athletes use marijuana (a largely untested drug in MLB) to come down after games. Others negotiate gyms, clinics and back alleys for the latest PEDs to stay ahead of the testing.
The more marginal the player, the greater the temptation to cheat. That’s the definition of a man like Colabello who’d been seven years in independent baseball. While he pleaded about his respect for the game and his team mates baseball people weren’t fooled.
Former MLB pitcher Dirk Hayhurst wrote, “If you did drugs, just say you did it. If you didn’t, just say you know what it means, and it sucks, and you’re mad, and you’re really sorry - but please, don’t tell me how much you love the game; it makes it really hard to take you seriously.”
Because we know so many athletes are doing exactly what Colabello was doing you hope he isn’t made the example. But in the disposable world of athletes, that might be too much for the 29-year-old to hope for.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).