I've been known to have a soft spot for hockey. It could be that I've played the game since I was 5, but besides that, I love the game for its combination of purity, skill, speed, flow and physicality that no other sport displays in such an amalgamation of characteristics. Add to that mix very personable players and coaches (all who love their sport more than any other professional athlete or coach in any sport) and you have a formula that should work.
It is my belief that there is no reason why the NHL should not stand shoulder to shoulder with the big 3 (NFL, MLB, NBA) in terms of, at least, fan appreciation/popularity and quality on TV (this NBA season not withstanding). That being said, the NHL should crush the "little guys" such as the PGA, WTA, AFL, MLS, NASCAR and all the other niches that take eyeballs away from the best game not being seen. But TV ratings, while subjective, are the death knell of sport and I am not, nor will I ever claim, that the NHL should stand among the bourgeoisie of sports on television (namely the NFL and MLB) here in the U.S. But there's no reason it shouldn't be on the radar the way it is not right now.
Note: I am deliberately leaving out college sports- especially football and hoops- simply because I have found that no matter what you do, no matter how you try to argue it, the college fan/TV viewer is different from the professional sports (average?) fan/TV viewer. Sure, many (most?) college sports fans watch other sports and have a level of fandom that matches or exceeds other's enthusiasm, but mainstream college sports on television (again, football, hoops) will always be in a vacuum with viewers- they will ebb and flow slightly, but there is a core audience and they are the same but very different from "pro sports first" viewers. I am sure there is Nielsen data and syndicated market research via ESPN, Forrester, and others to support this, but I really have not brought this up to focus on it, so let's just move on and accept it for argument's sake, agreed? Thanks.
So then, I will ask the question that has been asked before, but has no answer yet that satisfies the "Powers that be" in the NHL or sports world:
How do you fix the NHL?
Well, it will not be easy, but here's my guide to resuscitating the "Coolest Game on Earth." One caveat- I will not be discussing how to fix the on-ice game, i.e., rule changes and such. We've tinkered with the game enough. Those changes won't change fan perceptions, so stop trying. My suggestions are purely fan and marketing centered.
#1: Focus on the players. Seriously, I challenge you to find any sport where you could literally have a full conversation with nearly any of the players, regardless of whether they are U.S. born, Canadian, European, Russian or otherwise and not come away feeling you got something out of it. You will not see another group of foreign-born players do so well at assimilating into American society- hell, too many of the (U.S. born) NFL and NBA players cannot keep up an intelligent interview, let alone do it in a language other than their native tongue. Oh, and I dare you to find me an arrest record (I'm talking to you, Cincinnati Bengals). NHL players are smart, engaging, competitive as hell and (this is for the ladies) good looking! Seriously, in the world of sports, guys know there is an unwritten rule that the hottest significant others are dating/engaged/married to NHL players and PGA players. Why? Because women think they are hot too! (With the exception of Phil Mickelson, but he's "Lefty" so his wife Amy gets a mulligan.) This is a very marketable point the NHL has yet to explore. More off-ice exposure amongst the female population will help attract a broader fan base. The Today Show, The View, Ellen, Oprah... do the daytime circuit with a powerful gimmick (Gasp! Let the players talk) and watch how fast wives get their husbands into Sid the Kid on Versus on a Tuesday night.
#2. "The Coolest Game on Earth" Part: Deux- It seems to me that after the popular tag line bid, "adieu", so did the relevance of the NHL. I also believe this coincided with the NHL's push for street and roller hockey development around the U.S. The "coolest game" was no longer, well, cool. It was, "warm, sunny and 70 with a 0% chance of snow or rain." Listen folks- hockey is ice hockey. It is a winter sport. It's cool- nay, cold. Trust me on this (again, I play the game, watch the game. love the game)... there is no comparison between street or roller hockey and ice hockey- especially played at the elite level. It's not even the same game. Told to me anecdotally, a famous college hockey coach once told his team years ago, "Gentleman it (hockey) is a slippery game, and it's played on ice." It's time to bring that aspect back. Commercials with the warrior analogy (so 2006) or- as seemed evident this year- a lack of advertising focus ("My NHL"? Huh, what?) has lost the general sports fan and credibility with said fan because there is no relevance to them.
#3. YouTube (and more generally, new media). The NHL has done something right. They signed a deal with YouTube to distribute NHL clips and games and, if done right, could do more for the League's exposure than any other piece of marketing they can think of. The New York Islanders "Blog Box" is a another fine example of the NHL recognizing what other sports have yet to admit- the fans want to (and can) run the show. It's the convergence of the Internet with the Reality TV era. Any fan with a keyboard, digital camera/camcorder, minimal editing ability and an Internet connection can produce quality exposure for ANY topic. The NHL has a chance to lead by example for once, and take us on a ride into new media long before it becomes mainstream media. I would like to note to anyone reading this we obviously might feel this (Internet, blogs, online video, etc.) already is mainstream media, but you have to accept that the general population is still clueless and this is a new form of coverage in its infancy. The NHL, if done wisely, can be synonymous with the future (present) of our media consumption.
So what would be the epitome of these suggestions? I dare the NHL to hand the marketing reigns over... to the fans! Run an online contest, offer a sweepstakes, Hell, make a reality program out of it! But you could combine all three above suggestions and give a group of fans the power to: 1.
Access the players and shed a new light on them from a completely new perspective; 2. Bring back the "cool" to a game in desperate need of such a face lift; and 3. Extend the fan's power to a place we all know it is headed with or without the help of sports leagues anyway- your desktop/laptop/phone.
I even have a few samplings here, here, here, and here from the folks at "Warrior", a newer face in the hockey equipment game, as an example of a group who is starting to get it. Granted this is just print media, but its this fresh edge, with it's acceptance of current culture, the look and feel of now, that should encourage others to bring this perspective on behalf of the NHL to the masses via your dial-up/cable/T1/fibre optic/cellular connection the 'Net.
You bring this edge to new media, sports fans, and you just may return the League to its prominence as the "Coolest Game"- on Earth or in Cyberspace.
Posted by Jingoist at 8:55 AM