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Over the past decade, the National Hockey League has been suffering from declining television audiences in the US. The trend has been accelerated by the season-long lockout in 2004-05 which - quite frankly - left a horrible taste in mouths of most casual American fans. Because of the size (and therefore dollars) wrapped up in the American television market, perhaps the largest subject of discussion among the NHL brass is how to win over more and more of US dollars.

The crux of the problem is that hockey as a sport is not very television friendly. Actually, scratch that. Hockey involves the best conditioned athletes in professional sports playing a fast pace, often violent, and highly dramatic sport in which one team's fortunes can change in half a second. It's extremely TV friendly. It is not, however, very money friendly. Football and Baseball are slow paced and full of natural interruptions in the play that scream for the viewer to be bombarded with advertisements. Basketball doesn't really get dramatic until the last two minutes of the game and isn't impacted by commercial interruptions in terms of flow and it's pretty cheap to fund a basketball team - all you need is a ball and a hard flat surface. The game of hockey is one that is heavily dependent upon the building of momentum and a steady flow of action. Force too many long interruptions upon the sport (such as commercial breaks) and the quality of the game greatly suffers. Given that, it's perfectly understandable why American corporations - whose profits are so closely dependent upon the dollars generated from advertising - would be reluctant to encourage networks to push hockey to American audiences. Therefore, the NHL's reaction has been predictable: find ways to "Americanize" hockey in order to tap into a very lucrative market.

The question I wish they would ask is: "Do we really want too many Americans to like our sport?"

The obvious answer - the one that Gary Bettman and nearly all of the NHL team owners will give - is "DUH! Of course!" But consider this: Even recently, Americans have made "Moulin Rouge" a hit movie, Brittany Spears a hit musician, "American Idol" a hit TV show, NASCAR an increasingly popular "sport," McDonald's a choice food, and have elected George W. Bush as president twice (OK, that's debatable, but ONCE at least). Let's face it, for all the great accomplishments we as Americans have made - and they are numerous - far too many of our popular choices have really sucked.

What the game of hockey is providing is a unique look at what American style capitalism - arguably the most powerful influence on culture world wide - does to athletic and artistic ventures. Capitalism, for all of the success, efficiency, and prosperity that it brings to the economic sector, seems to have an extremely negative impact on sport and art in terms of quality. It seems that these days all of our music, art, and sport falls under the umbrella term dubbed the "entertainment industry." Which is the problem: the fact we feel it's perfectly acceptable to allow our entertainment to become industrialized. Sport and art are best when they are encouraged to enhance craft and skill. Industry, on the other hand, is by nature trying to maximize mass production, efficiency, and profitability. Too often the goals are exclusive of one another and in a capitalist society, industry too often wins.

A window of what the NHL is heading towards looks upon the NBA, where the players have become dominated by giants who run back and forth dunking a ball through a hoop in what has essentially become a contest of who can miss the basket less, not who can score most. Star players have become caricatures of themselves whose primary value to their teams and their sport is not necessarily deliver talented and committed play, but rather to make endorsements and generate publicity. Just consider how much of the focus in football, basketball, and baseball has shifted from teams to individuals.

In the end, I'm sure this is a futile argument. In order to keep itself from falling into complete obscurity, the NHL will have change itself so that it is more marketable, more soulless, more "American." We're already getting a peek of the alternative, which is a sport, despite its superiority, is being ridiculed for the apathy that Americans have towards it and its heavy foreign influence - much like the treatment higher art has received by being dubbed "weird" or "snobby." Ultimately, the NHL is not run by idiots and more money is certainly the desired endgame; the sport will industrialize itself and - assuming that the big three US sports don't feel that their profits will be too threatened by its growth - it will gradually be pushed into American television sets by advertisers and eventually gaining acceptance.

I only hope that before this happens, someone a lot closer to the commissioner's office than myself calls for the sport to do some serious soul-searching.
Filed Under:   NHL   Opinion  
December 4, 2007 12:13 AM ET | Delete
America is still better than Canada though! Get a life.
December 4, 2007 12:14 AM ET | Delete
Do we really want the NFL in Canada?! HELL NO!
December 4, 2007 2:27 AM ET | Delete
You had a good premise if you would have stopped your blog about halfway through the second paragraph. Unfortunately, after that encouraging start, you drifted into exaggerated pessimism using dated, silly examples and dubious logic. Industrialized entertainment? Please. Maybe your examples describe your own desires and likes and beliefs but they certainly don't represent those of most of us.
December 4, 2007 9:33 AM ET | Delete
You make it sound as though American capitalism is the problem here. Its not. The problem is that the NHL owners and players want to make the money that their couterparts in the other major sports make. American TV money is what makes that happen. If you can talk the players into taking minor league salaries and the owners into not expecting any profit, then you won't need all those commercials. Good luck!
December 4, 2007 9:56 AM ET | Delete
You made a lot of good points, but you said the NHL is not run by idiots. I beg to differ. The NHL's leadership is utterly inept. The lack of a solid growth plan, which saw reckless expansion, led to a watered down and boring game and created unstable markets in a sport that relies HEAVILY on regional support. I could go on about the decision to go to VS, the lockout, the poor job of marketing the sport, the lack of a league wide initiative to help fund youth hockey...
December 4, 2007 11:03 AM ET | Delete
We are all human. We want money so we can live comfortably. Yeah, I hate American Idol. Keeping up with Brittany Spears is a collossal waste of time. But it's mindless entertainment for some and some need that to take them away from their misery and depression.
December 4, 2007 2:12 PM ET | Delete
I thought you had a good blog here.Keep it up
December 4, 2007 2:51 PM ET | Delete
I don't understand any people putting down this blog-- well thought out. And American-style capitalistic greed accounts for a lot, though not all, of the NHL's problems. While I don't like the watered-down theory,(the talent pool has increased proportionally), trying to cram hockey down the throats of American markets that have not proven any interest is greedy and short-sighted. I won't get into the domino effect, but it's there mostly in the blog. It really pisses me off and I don't blame any Canadian for feeling anger.In short, there should be nothing wrong with hockey not being a huge marketing giant in America. If baseball can be Britney Spears, hockey can be Alison Krauss. Reserving the sport to those who have a passion for it is the best play, be it in Minnesota or Montreal. Unfortunately for us, it's not the most lucrative play.
December 4, 2007 4:15 PM ET | Delete
I'm sorry, I don't see how this blog has any valid substance. Drawing on some sort of Anti-American sentiment to prove a point about hockey is simply foolish. Big deal if Americans like certain things that Canadians scratch their heads at, it means nothing in terms of hockey succeeding. Allegedly you all like curling and none of us Americans see the glory in ice brushing. The 'enhancement of craft and skill' makes the game of hockey and that's what WILL sell it to the American market. Unfortunately the marketing gurus of the NHL are stupid. My region (the south) doesn't know hockey. So the overwhelming push of the NHL's marketing powers should be changing that. Interest has to be cultivated in unique and innovative ways for us to buy into this sport. That's not done. The south is the untapped market, the NHL has the dollars of Canada and the northern parts of the US. We're where new money is, and it has nothing to do with the sport itself but its packaging. Couple that with really poor decisions by the NHL (a la Versus), poor management by teams like Detroit and Chicago, and economic factors, no wonder the league is losing money and NEEDS its investment in the American south to pan out.
December 4, 2007 6:46 PM ET | Delete
I should probably point out that I am an American and very happy to be living in the USA. My blog wasn't meant to be anti-USA, just to reflect upon the affect that American capitalism has had on NHL. Also, I don't feel that everything popular by American standards is bad or evil, just that the primary focus of industry is to make as much money as quickly as possible - which overall has been proven to be a good thing, but not so much for sport or art, for which the primary focus (I feel) should be the quality of the product. The two aren't always mutually exclusive, but successful businesses will almost always make choices that will maximize profit over choices that will increase quality when push comes to shove. And I don't really blame the players for choosing to take the big salaries or owners for wanting to make as much money as possible - I know that I would feel the same way put in their shoes. I was merely pointing-out that making and "entertainment industry" (which is a common term and not one that I invented) has certain trade-offs and that the struggle to come to terms with those trade-offs appears evident to me in the current state of the NHL.
December 5, 2007 6:47 AM ET | Delete
If the NHL was a popular sport to gamble on it would be on network tv. Gambling increases ratings and popularity. Higher scoring games and greater ability to comeback from 3 goal deficits would help. NHL expanded too quick and too far.
December 5, 2007 11:57 PM ET | Delete
You make some good points, but....I don't think with Bettman in charge of the league there's any threat of the ultimate demise you envision. Fundamentally, there's really no serious push to market the NHL to anyone, much less "Americans". And to "Americanize" the sport of Ice Hockey doean't mean a lot in the first place as four of the "Original Six" teams were in the United States in the first place (Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York Rangers). I understand that there are people that view Hockey as a "Fundamentally Canadian" game, but that is not, and never really has been the case. With 24 of the 30 taems in the NHL based in the United States, it's even less so now. Let's look at recent Stanley Cup winners like Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Anaheim as an opportunity to expand the sport, and the love OF the sport rather than as a curse. Every sports franchise needs dollars (Canadian or US) to keep it running. Let's not begrudge the people that provide us the entertainment that we love so much their own due. Mike Ilitch runs arguably the most successful hockey franchise in the NHL, winning 3 Stanley Cups since 1997, but makes less money at it than "Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment", whose team hasn't seen the Cup since 1963......"Americanization" indeed.
December 6, 2007 1:25 AM ET | Delete
Interesting blog. Bettman isn't an idiot. His job is to make money for the owners while keeping costs down. You only have to look at the jump in value of the franchises to see that he's achieved this. I bet the owners love this guy. The problem is that we care about the sport and it's future. Bettman will be gone one day (not soon enough, granted), all the owners will be gone but the fans and the sport will remain. Unfortunately these creeps do not care about the future or the wider view like we do.Oh, and I like Moulin Rouge...but that's just me.
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