- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sports Biz

No one really cared that the NHL shut down the rest of its locked-out 2004-05 season last week. Or at least that was the conventional wisdom.

A litany of opinion polls told us “don’t care” was the leading response to the cancellation, some by as much as a 3-1 margin. Others quickly pointed to ESPN, Fortune 500 corporate sponsors and other entities that have seamlessly shifted their resources from hockey to other sports.

It is no doubt true the NHL is a troubled league, falling further behind the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and badly in need of a total creative and commercial rebirth. But apathy hardly seems the proper way to describe the reaction to last week’s historic news.

The NHL’s season cancellation, a first for North American pro sports, generated all-day coverage on two ESPN networks Wednesday. Newspapers and wire services wrote more than 1,000 stories on the move over a three-day period, easily dwarfing the 411 pieces produced on self-proclaimed steroid maven Jose Canseco in the same time period. ESPN.com recorded a near-quadrupling of hockey-related traffic on the site the day of the announcement.

The press hysteria was not over. Breathless reports of the “imminent” and miraculous arrival of a new labor deal fell apart yesterday in the wake of an unsuccessful 6 1/2-hour negotiating session in New York.

Those same unscientific opinion polls by ESPN.com, Yahoo and other Internet heavyweights similarly come under some suspicion.

“If you actually go to all the trouble of filling out a poll, you care,” said Kevin Morgan, Washington Capitals vice president of sales. “I don’t buy those numbers saying everybody doesn’t care. This is still a sport that was outdrawing the NBA [before the lockout].”

Morgan’s comment bears a closer look. The NHL beat the NBA in aggregate attendance each season from 2001 to 2004 and did so at comparable ticket prices and without any significant broadcast network TV coverage. Hockey’s Shermanesque march across the Southeast and West Coast in the 1990s may have been ill-advised in retrospect. But in the sport’s Northern and Canadian fan bases, thousands of families carefully pass season-ticket rights from generation to generation, just as people do for many NFL teams. A more pure form of fandom can hardly be found.

Some casual observers no doubt paid attention to the NHL’s self-immolation simply because no other sports entity, particularly one as fragile as this one, had actually lost an entire season to labor strife. But does anyone remember the Arena Football League in 2000? Still reveling in the NFL success of league alumnus Kurt Warner, AFL management similarly voted to shut down its season. The news barely made a dent in the sporting mainstream, but fortunately for the AFL, the move quickly prompted a resurrection in talks and a new labor deal within days.

So while plenty of fans do care that the NHL season is gone, even the mere image of an American population not caring about hockey highlights just how defunct the NHL’s marketing was before the lockout. The league’s two best known players are still Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, one retired for six years and a team owner in Phoenix, and the other a player-owner years past his on-ice prime.

And given the presence of Gretzky and Lemieux in yesterday’s talks, it appears their role in carrying the league on their backs now extends to bridging the still-cavernous gulf between players and management.

Here in Washington, fans clamor year-round over who punts for a football team that hasn’t posted a winning season since 1999, while only goalie Olie Kolzig among the Caps has any assurance of being widely recognized by the general population.

“Where’s the marketing really been for this league, the spotlight on the stars?” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “They’ve paid out so much in salaries, there hasn’t been much money left to use for promoting the sport. I don’t think there’s much question that has hurt a great deal.”

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