The off-season is fast approaching, and while I don’t want to short cut the glory of the playoffs, we’re about to be subjected to another round of rumored expansion plans and rule change proposals to boost next year’s numbers. (Remember the “buffalo” nets?)
I don’t know if you were following the recent “big” news out of NASCAR, but it bears mention. (Don’t go away, this really is about hockey). Apparently, some new guy beat some old guy’s record and a large portion of the fans went nuts. As new guy drove another circle to celebrate his recently completed 499 circles, the fan base pelted his passing car with the kind of debris that can only accumulate on a hot afternoon with nothing else on TV: half-full bottles of cheap beer and fried chicken parts.
From what little I understand about NASCAR, this is the equivalent of Sean Avery overtaking several Gretsky records in a single game. I can’t imagine the kind of horror that would inspire your average fan of Left-Turn-Only to throw a beer cup – with beer in it – at the winner.
So why should we hockey fans care about this?
Earlier this year it was rumored that the NHL was looking at a NASCAR guru named Eddie Gossage to either assist or replace Gary Bettman in his effort to expand the NHL Empire. Eddie is apparently a whiz kid of marketing, responsible for NASCAR’s meteoric rise in popularity.
There’s been much ado in the past few seasons regarding Gary Bettman’s plans for expanding the NHL, and to most hockey fans, the commish falls somewhere between “annoyance” and “Satan Incarnate.”
Bettman has been driving expansion of the NHL since he came into office in 1993. Teams have expanded, moved, and gone bankrupt. In an attempt at long-term marketing, rules have changed, TV networks have changed, and all the while the big debate continues to rage:
Should the game change to meet the demographic, or should the demographic change to meet the game?
The purist in us all would love to see arenas in every qualified city, stacked to the gills with knowledgeable fans that paid no more than $10 per seat, but got in only after passing a rules quiz. The kind of fans that boo an icing call because it was a bad play, not because it was a whistle against the home team.
We can probably make some assumptions about how Gary would respond to this suggestion. But the fact remains that some of the teams are having trouble getting dedicated fans in the building. Nashville has taken a beating in recent weeks for having a playoff capable team that gets fewer than 14,000 fans in the building on an average night. Before you dismiss this as a “sun belt” problem, both Detroit and New Jersey are having problems, even during the playoffs.
We routinely hear black cloud prognostications based upon how the NHL consistently ranks below NASCAR for ratings and attendance. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Consider the fans that NASCAR has attracted through its marketing blitz. I for one would love to see our sport expand. However, I don’t want to share my seat with the kind of “fans” NASCAR-style marketing creates.
My point is this: perhaps the expansion of the NHL really is going in the right direction. While it isn’t painless, we are attracting people that are interested in hockey, not just another sport to watch. Recent rule changes have brought about renewed interest in hockey from non-traditional demographics. But the expansion has been slow. I think we should keep it that way for a few more years and see where it gets us before we call for the next round of expansion/contraction and rule changes.
Let the demographic come to the game, not the other way around.