Monday, 10 September 2007

The NHL Is Jason Bourne

I have always been fond of articles and stories that dive into the NHL's identity problem in the United States of Capitalism. Normally, there are comparisons made to the other three major professional sports leagues about how the NHL is gaining ground, and how the NHL is playing to packed houses, and how the NHL is on solid ground. The normal retraction to this is that the game has been watered-down and the talent pool just isn't what it once was back in the heady days of the 1980s. Of course, the real "die-hards" call for contraction of the teams with lower than expected attendance, most notably in the Sunbelt States. The problem is that the NHL itself has an identity problem. Much like the Robert Ludlum character named Jason Bourne, the NHL can tell you who they are, but not much else. This is where the NHL's problem lies in the United States. Allow me to expand on this in the next few paragraphs.

The NHL knows it has a safehouse in Canada. Canadian teams were responsible for 40% of the income that was generated by the NHL last season. That's six teams generating two-fifths of the entire NHL's income. I'm no economist or math wizard, but it appears that 24 teams are responsible for 60% of the income last season, making each American-based team responsible for 2.5% of the remaining money that the NHL made. I'm almost certain that each team can handle making 2.5% of the NHL's income through merchandise sales. If they cannot, they have a problem.

The NHL has a real problem on its hands with the new Rbk Edge Uniform System merchandise pricing. When CCM held the team merchandise contract, you could buy a semi-pro jersey in Canada for anywhere between $80 to $100, and an authentic jersey for anywhere between $200 to $250. Rbk Hockey has now shifted the game away from the people who keep the gate-driven league of the NHL in the black ink. An ARE-BEE-KAY replica jersey now costs $150 US, and the authentic on-ice jerseys sell for an outrageous $350 US. Does this new technology cost that much to design, test, and market? I'm a blue-collar worker with a modest salary. I can't afford to plop down $350 for my team. It would be even worse if I was married and had kids.

In this case, the NHL is losing out on major merchandising sales due to their partnership with Reebok. The NHL is a gate-driven league. It relies heavily on its fans to keep its ledgers on the positive side, and it does this through ticket sales and merchandising. By taking one of the larger-priced items of clothing out of the hands of NHL fans by increasing the price, the NHL's pocketbook should see a decrease in revenue this season. Will Gary Bettman spin it as a loss? Heck, no. His statistics will be about increased merchandise sales, and how teams across the board have sold more merchandise than the previous years. The only problem is that with all the new looks that teams are unveiling, there should be obvious merchandise increases in some areas. The overall dollar value, I suspect, will not be the same.

In following the trend of less jerseys being bought, there will be a notable loss of relating to a team. In NHL cities across Canada, I'd guess that one of every three people who go to NHL games owns an NHL jersey. Everyone knows what team you support when you wear it because of the logo and image. If the NHL doesn't alter its pricing of the jerseys so that the fans can afford to buy the merchandise again, the NHL will be forced to re-invent itself all over again in as little as five years as merchandise sales flounder. With ticket prices on the rise (in some cases, ticket costs are skyrocketing), the NHL is starting to find itself back in the same position it was before the lockout - too expensive for the average fan to care.

Carter Gaddis of the Tampa Tribune also looked at the problem with the NHL in the United States. He interviewed Gary Thorne, the long-time voice of the NHL on ESPN before ESPN became more Hollywood than sports. Mr. Thorne states:

"My first reaction is, and I've said this for the last 20 years, I wish the NHL would stop trying to compare itself to the other so-called 'Big Three' sports in this country," said ESPN's longtime voice of the NHL, Gary Thorne, who now calls Orioles baseball games as well as other sports including the NCAA Frozen Four on ESPN. "It's not going to be that. It doesn't have to be that. It shouldn't be striving for that. It's a great sport as it is. Highly successful as a gate-driven league. Take what you have and make it as good as it can be.

"But stop drawing comparisons with the other three sports. Once you start that with attendance numbers, television ratings... you're going to look bad. Why do you do that as a league? And they do."

Mr. Thorne is absolutely right. The NHL always tries to highlight the great players they have playing from all walks of life and all backgrounds, yet they always try to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to corporate comparisons. The NHL can't sell itself until it separates itself from the other leagues' statistics.

The NHL is unique. It has very little problems in terms of its image, unlike the NFL's recent dog-fighting scandal, MLB's steroid scandals, and the NBA's gangster-thug image. It is the fastest game played by human beings. It is beautiful and graceful while being brutal and violent. The athletes work hard in their communities to grow the game, and represent their respective countries when called upon in international play. No other league has this kind of uniqueness. And no other league fails to mention their positives as much as the NHL does.

The NHL, right now, reminds me of Jason Bourne from The Bourne Identity. He's awake, he knows who he is, but he can't remember anything else. He keeps pushing for answers only to find himself in more perilous situations. He won't let anyone get close to him because he doesn't know himself well enough, nor does he know where to start looking.

The NHL needs to stay ahead of the curve by being innovative. Partnering with YouTube and Slingbox, as well as offering broadband video and highlights on their own site, have helped in drawing in the MySpace and Facebook tech-savvy crowds to a degree. Bringing ESPN back into the mix as early as 2008-09 will definitely help the NHL's cause. Retaining TV contracts with such companies as TSN and CBC will help keep the game strong where those stations can be seen.

Most of all, the NHL needs to redefine their economics. Stop raising prices. Stop increasing the salary cap. Stop trying to be something you're not. The NHL is its own unique brand of entertainment just as much as horror movies are or ballet is. The best part of it all is that hockey, in its own uniqueness, can breath-taking, dramatic, and exciting all in the same moment.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

God bless you for that great commentary!

Connie said...

Hmm....Gary Bettman....yeah....

Jerseys - This is one situation in which being a girl is better. Actually...being is girl is better. period. (I don't know why I said that in the first place. =P) But, my brother bought my women's style jersey for me with "Blake" and a large #4 on the back. Total damage? About $70 US. Sweet action.