The National Hockey League has stopped playing games that matter this week while it puts many of its star players in the spotlight during its annual all-star game, the first in three years. In many ways, the non-contest, which is being held in Dallas tomorrow, is a microcosm of the league itself in its struggles to attract wider audiences to the sport.
Commissioner Gary Bettman typically delivers a state-of-the-game assessment during this break, and as always, it will be a rosy one. But all is not rosy. Attendance is down, TV ratings are abysmal and the league still can't seem to figure out how to market its assets to non-core fans. And it's not only the owners. The players, too, have paid scant attention to the sport's marketing woes.
"It's a bit like pulling teeth during the season," said Calgary defenceman Andrew Ference, one of half-a-dozen player business representatives who are in Dallas to kick around some marketing ideas. "We have to convince guys that it's worth doing."
Based on the number of arenas with empty seats and falling TV ratings, "obviously, their marketing is not working very well," said sports marketing expert Brad Robins, who likes the league's new Internet content ventures, but says it is still not doing enough to expose the game to new audiences.
Take the all-star game, which has been moved back to midweek from its previous Sunday slot. The league thus avoids clashing with National Football League playoffs and other sports that crowd the weekend calendar south of the border. But more important, NHL owners no longer lose their regular Saturday night games, by far the most profitable on the schedule.
In the tradeoff, the NHL gets more money in the till and avoids embarrassing itself by drawing a lousy weekend rating for a showcase game. But it also loses national U.S. network exposure. Instead, the game ends up on the little-seen Versus cable channel competing against the likes of American Idol, by far the most watched series on television, particularly by the younger audience the NHL would love to get its hands on.
Then, just to prove that if the NHL didn't have bad luck it might have no luck at all, Dallas Cowboys' coach Bill Parcells, arguably the city's highest-profile sports personality, announced his resignation yesterday. As a result, the all-star game has been shunted to the media sidelines.
What other league would go out of its way to ensure that its best asset, namely its new wave of young talent, is seen by a minuscule audience comprised almost exclusively of people who already know and like the game? Or that its showcase is held in a city where football is by far the dominant sport? Why, the same people who gave us an unbalanced schedule that prevents fans in certain markets from seeing - at least not live - a Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin or all of the Buffalo Sabres or Detroit Red Wings in a given season.
That wouldn't matter in the National Football League, which is so heavily dependent on TV revenues that it could put a team in an empty stadium and still make money. But it does matter in a league that relies on gate revenues for a large chunk of its income.
"You're hard-pressed in some markets to have a chance to see any of the new stars," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center and a die-hard Vancouver Canucks fan since childhood.
Swangard sees it as the sports equivalent of a Ringling Bros. show leaving behind its top-drawing acrobats when it goes on tour. "If I have empty seats and I know there are some players who could potentially put butts in seats, I should think like a circus and take my stars on the road."
Hockey has yet to figure out that it's not the game itself that will attract new fans, regardless of rule changes and cool new uniforms, but compelling stories. The NFL is a perfect example. Sunday's playoff between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots drew a huge audience, not because it was an important game but because viewers were drawn to the drama of Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning seeking redemption.
Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of basketball's Dallas Mavericks, has some intriguing advice for the NHL when it comes to marketing its stars.
"One of the biggest challenges the NHL has is that there isn't one player that we all know is going to be quotable, and the media is going to run with and pay too much attention to," he wrote in his blog. Cuban would love to see Crosby or one of the sport's other young guns show some flare and self-promotion on the ice.
Among his off-the-cuff suggestions: pull out a cap after scoring a hat-trick and put it on in front of the opposing goalie. "Yeah, there would be some gloves dropped, but if it happened a second time, it would be all over the national news and sports fans across the country just might be curious enough to turn on the TV to see what would happen next."
Cuban acknowledges that the "purists" would argue that the game is enough to sell the product. His reply: "Yeah, right."
Ference and his colleagues were hoping to meet Cuban in Dallas to discuss his ideas, but he'll be on the road with his Mavericks. But they will sit down with some Hollywood types to talk about possible ventures that would raise the sport's profile.
"It's a work in progress," Ference said of efforts to improve NHL marketing. "It's not going to be perfected in one year or two years."