Actually, I have a few friends who are hockey fans but this one’s more ornery than most.
He and I sometimes debate about sports and stuff. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name is J-Dub and he writes for this quasi-pornographic website called Dubsism. He’s the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up.
Since hockey season has officially started and Mr. Dub is always trying to convince me of the merits of his beloved game, as well as the shame that comes from living in Florida, I thought we’d host a little conversation about hockey in the Sunshine State.
As you all know, I live in the Tampa Bay area, an area which hosts itself a pretty good hockey team. J-Dub would probably argue that we don’t deserve a team that good, if any team at all, but I’ll let him speak for himself.
In a city whose sports teams cannot draw fans, the Lightning organization has done things the right way. In fact (homer alert), this team could be on a pace to win the Stanley Cup (again) within the next few years.
They’ve got a founder in Phil Esposito (hockey lifer), a solid GM in Steve Yzerman (hockey lifer) and an owner in Jeffrey Vinik who’s willing to spare no expense in putting a quality product on the ice. Vinik is such an effective owner he recently got Bill Gates to invest in an area in Tampa that nobody even frequents.
So, Dub, let’s start this ice party off with a bang, shall we? I’m watching hockey now. Does that make you sleep better at night? I even went and bought myself a t-shirt and hat for the next game I attend. As an avid sports but fledgling hockey fan, am I worthy of rooting for the sport you cherish or am I the kind of bandwagoning fool you despise?
First off, let’s get a couple of things straight. A while back, Ryan Meehan and I clearly delineated what is hockey territory and what isn’t.
What exactly is “hockey territory?” Essentially, it’s anywhere that has a) real winters, b) a reasonable market for professional sports, c) anyplace where hockey is the “national sport,” and/or d) a city with a large population transplanted from “a” or “c.” In other words, this means Canada, the northeastern third of the U.S. and about four cities outside of that.
In other words, the J-Dub – Meehan postulate dictates that Tampa is in fact suitable hockey territory. So, it isn’t really the fact that SportsChump is watching hockey that keeps me awake at night. I’m also not terribly concerned about “bandwagoning” fools. I’m not even feeling the need to get into the idea that football is king in Florida.
You know what really concerns me about hockey in Florida? Hockey doesn’t need any more fans like, well, you know.
Let’s be honest. To be a hockey fan is to be waging a battle with John Barleycorn. There’s a reason why every hockey arena in Canada wears the name of a beer company. Not to get all 9th-grade algebra class on you, but the ratio of Canadians to hockey fans to complete drunks is best expressed in a Venn diagram.
What really concerns me is the addition of large numbers of Floridians just means this diagram becomes a sea of 100-proof vomit. Face it, Chump. You’re a bartender and you know damn good and well what could have happened had the Gators lost to Georgia again. That Lightning game you went to could have been swept under a tsunami of Muschamp-and-bourbon fueled regurgitation. What would the Venn diagram look like after adding a bunch of Sunshine staters?
First of all, Dub, allow me to apologize for missing that post. As you well know, I’m a faithful reader of yours and Mee’s collaborations. The only way I can explain it is that it must have been during SportsChump’s B.H. days.
That’s right. Before hockey.
After donning my full-on bandwagon gear, I’ll be salivating at the thought of any future hockey posts if only to learn more about the game from a guy who didn’t start watching the sport yesterday.
Here’s a story you’ll appreciate.
A few weeks ago, I attended my second game of the season. Club level seats for sixty bucks which included a crab-cake filled buffet and all you could drink beer and wine. Needless to say, they lost money on me.
I sat one row in front of a family that had brought their young son.
At first, the young lad was SportsChumpish in his hockey familiarity, asking his parents silly questions about the sport and having a tough time following the puck. By the final period, the kid was on his feet shouting “Crash him into the boards!”
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome another convert.
I’m about to say something once thought ludicrous outside of perhaps Canada and US cities that smell like Canada. This most recent World Series drew some of the lowest television ratings ever. Despite Gary Bettman’s existence as NHL Commissioner, could we actually see a time where hockey outdraws Major League Baseball?
I say that because technically, that’s already happening here in the Bay area.
Goddamnit, now I have to clarify what “Bay Area” means. I’m sure down there in Florida (colloquially referred to by Homer Simpson as “America’s Wang”) Tampa qualifies as the “Bay Area.” But if you use that term in non-“Hanging Chad” America, people picture San Francisco. That’s important because the city actually known as “The City by the Bay” figures prominently in the World Series that drew such low ratings.
We as sports fans get treated to that old wheeze about the declining popularity of baseball anytime the Fall Classic doesn’t include the Yankees or the Red Sox. Everybody would love you to believe that football rules the American sports world, but the dirty little secret is that football, baseball, and hockey are all very regional in their appeal. I made this point in a prior post about how Roger Goodell wants us all to be New York Jets fans.
The “Cliff Notes” version works like this: The NFL’s hold as the most popular sport in this country is tenuous at best. Nobody at NFL headquarters wants to admit this but the NFL really isn’t the most popular sport all across this country; its appeal it’s actually quite regional. There’s no doubt the NFL is king in the south, Texas and the non-California west. But in California, mid-western cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and the northeast, there’s no question that baseball is as strong as it ever was.
So, where does hockey fit in to this? Because the “hockey territory” map I used earlier is essentially the same you could use for baseball, with a few minor tweaks. That’s not the only way that baseball and hockey interact. Hockey and baseball manage to keep the important parts of each other’s seasons from overlapping. Every town in Western Canada has a baseball diamond, and every November the outfield gets flooded in order to become a rink. In April, the boards come down to be reconverted into an outfield fence. There’s also a reason why the CFL season starts right after the Stanley Cup Final ends and why the Grey Cup final is done before December.
Why does that matter? Because it means the answer to your question is “not likely.” In the U.S. and Canada, baseball and hockey are popular in the same areas and in many cases share the same fans. When you stop to consider the popularity of baseball in the Latin American world where hockey is virtually non-existent, you can see why the growth potential of hockey popularity in North America is limited.
Dubstep, I don’t disagree with your premise that these sports are regionally based. Nor do I disagree that the NFL’s stranglehold on this country is untouchable. But there’s no denying that baseball’s popularity is on the decline. And if more NHL owners follow the Lightning’s diagram for success, hockey will surely be on the rise.
One of this year’s World Series games was outdrawn by an episode of The Big Bang Theory so either that means the geeks are taking over or nobody gives a shit about baseball anymore. Sure the lack of an East Coast presence contributed to this year’s piss-poor ratings but San Fran is still one of the nation’s biggest markets, they had a pitcher do something never done before and the Royals are an exciting, young and likeable team. Sure, nobody had heard of them before October but what is baseball doing about that other than showing their playoff games on networks nobody gets?
Here’s another example of how hockey is growing in our bay area (there is a bay here, I promise) while our local football and baseball teams struggle to draw fans. I went out on the town the other night with some friends. The venues we hit were a stone’s throw from Raymond James Stadium where the Buccaneers pretend they’re an NFL team.
Did we see Buccaneers signage anywhere? Not a one. Instead, do you know what we saw? Lightning crap everywhere. Players’ faces, Lightning logos, banners, swag, etc. That tells me someone is doing their job while other franchises simply are not. Sure, a winning product is easier to sell than a crappy one but I just can’t help but wonder if we’re witnessing a changing of the guard, even in increments.
You know what else the Lightning organization does? They give away tickets. Buddies of mine and I got six tickets for free just for jumping through a few hoops and answering a few questions online. Another buddy of mine is a half-season ticket holder. If he can’t make one game, he’s able to exchange them for another. That’s engaging a fan base.
The NHL has a long way to go before it topples Major League Baseball but the fact that I’m no hockey fan, never have been and have now been to three, make that four, NHL games this season where I’ve gone to a combined zero NFL and MLB games tells me something has changed. Football’s gone soft, baseball got boring meanwhile hockey’s athletes have gotten faster, more skilled and remain the least likely professional athletes you’d like to meet in a dark alley.
So you tell me… am I lying?
Lying is such a strong word. Let’s stick with “misguided.” You hit on the key to this when you mentioned “networks nobody gets.” You see, comparing a sporting event now (with the exception of the Super Bowl) to a network television program is the epitome of “apples and oranges” because none of these events have the universal appeal of shit like the “Big Bang Theory.” Allow me to walk through your last paragraph to demonstrate where you are wrong.
“But there’s no denying that baseball’s popularity is on the decline…”
Yeah, tell that to the regional cable networks whose revenues are exploding off what? Baseball. Whether it is Fox or Comcast, regional cable network are burgeoning especially in the areas where we’ve already agreed baseball is tops in its regional popularity. You have to remember that revenues trump actual viewers, because with cable, you get two revenue streams. With over-the-air programming, it’s all about viewers which correlates directly to advertising rates. With cable, you add subscription fees. Would you rather have 100 viewers who pay nothing for your product, or would you rather have 50 paying customers?
But let’s get this back to hockey. The NHL is actually doing a great job of marketing itself, but it has a big problem. It’s that pesky “network nobody gets” problem. If you don’t have cable, the NHL is virtually invisible to you until NBC starts giving you a Sunday “game of the week” later in the season. That model works for the regular season, but the NHL is the only “big four” league whose championship can’t consistently stay on over-the-air television.
That matters not so much for viewership, but for television. The Super Bowl is an enormous money-gasm, but it is so far more for the TV people than the NFL. The Super Bowl is actually a reward for the TV people for spending a season broadcasting shit like Buffalo vs. Cleveland. The World Series is a pay-off for Fox for supporting all those regional cable networks where baseball doesn’t draw. You can tell me all you want about “decreased ratings” for baseball, but nobody will sing that song when the networks are jockeying to get the rights for the Fall Classic.
In other words, you are right about the superior quality of the NHL’s product compared to the NFL and MLB, but it has a long way to go in terms of marketing that product.
So what does a sport do to translate the excitement of its play in person onto the television screen other than resorting back to that flaming, highlighted puck as it travels across the ice? Basketball has done so effectively. That game is exciting both in person and on TV (unless of course you’re watching the Lakers; then they’re both bad).
How does hockey capture both the season ticket holder and a healthy television viewing audience?
Or scratch that. Let’s redirect this conversation to a more personal level: the individual fan. After all, doesn’t it start there? Sure, massive television contracts are where the big money’s at but what about the individual fan walking through the turnstiles? The guy dumping $100 a game on over-priced beer and regrettable nachos.
In other words… me, their newest fan.
I am hockey’s B-voter and I am hooked. Minus the nachos, I’m the guy dropping legal tender at the games and I’m bringing people who do so too. Not only that but I’m the guy working at a pub, which happens to be adjacent to a trolley that sends people directly to the stadium PLUS I’m telling people what a blast the games are. I might not be able to name every player on their roster (there’s a lot of them with multiple consonants in a row, right?) but I’m there, I’m loud and most importantly to their bottom line, I’m spending money. Not Pay Stamkos kind of money but enough to keep its concessionaires prosperous as long as there are 18,600 others like me… which there are. The Lightning organization now ranks top ten in attendance whereas the Bucs and Rays are at the bottom of their respective leagues.
Don’t get me wrong. I was kidding about hockey overtaking Major League Baseball’s popularity on a grand scale. But I also recall a time when hockey was referred to as the fourth major sport. That stopped happening for a while. I think it’s making a comeback. I know I speak for a number of other Tampanians when I say we’re happy to have it here.
Here’s one last interesting statistic that doesn’t directly relate to money but does. According to Alexa, here are the ranks of the four “major” sports in terms of web traffic.
NFL.com ranks as the 58th most popular website in the US. It ranks 238th globally. NBA.com ranks 173rd in this country and 643rd globally. MLB.com ranks 220nd nationally and 479th globally. NHL.com ranks 382nd nationally and 1134th globally. That’s actually higher than I expected and I bet you it was lower a few years ago.
Its increasing popularity in strategic markets, such as this, ahem, bay area, might give it the push it needs to re-solidify its spot as the fourth major sport. (FYI, NASCAR.com is ranked 1355th in the US and 5281st internationally and the PGA Tour is worse than that.)
Any final thoughts? Thanks for entertaining my new hockey fetish. Next time you come down, tickets are on me. Then we could actually have one of these debates in person. Just hold the nachos.
I’ll ignore that Lakers comment in one respect because as a fan of that team dating back to Elgin Baylor, I know they are going to suck. I’m one of the few Laker fans out there with both the temerity and the cojones to admit that.
But from a fan loyalty perspective, what is happening to the Lakers is actually very germane to this discussion. Despite the fact the Lakers are headed into an era that will be far darker than the Del Harris era, the franchise will continue to have the most popular non-soccer team page on Facebook and Twitter. The reason is actually rather simple. The Los Angeles Lakers are a brand, and the brand will remain valuable for a host of reasons through periods of bad on-court performance. Think how the New York Yankees remained massively popular throughout the 1980’s when they were anything but competitive on the field.
Baseball has a shitload of franchises that fall into that category. The Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, and the aforementioned Yankees depend very little on on-field success when it comes to their overall valuation. Don’t forget, the Dodgers negotiated one of those aforementioned gargantuan regional cable deals in the immediate aftermath of the Frank McCourt era.
That raises the biggest point in any comparison of popular sports in this country. The U.S. has a far wider range of competitors for your sports dollar/viewership, and the Tampa Bay area is a perfect example. I’m sure SportsChump’s cable TV package offers plenty of access to all the regional attractions. You’ve got the Buccaneers, Rays, Lightning, and the nearby and nearly-NBA quality Orlando Magic. That’s not to mention a monstrous array of college football, basketball, and baseball, plus the various and sundry stuff on those “sports package” channels only real sports sickos like J-Dub watch (he did admit to watching a Canadian Football League play-off game while typing large portions of this post). To make a long story short, the best way to look at this is not as simply a hockey/baseball comparison, but as a broad look at sports and how they will compete in a market overloaded with competitors in a country with a rapidly changing set of demographics.
Most sports have a regional appeal. Most sports have a different appeal in different cultures. Baseball and hockey are no different. Twenty-five years ago, the very idea of hockey in Florida was laughable. Then again, so was the idea of a Tampa Bay Buccaneer Super Bowl win. In other words, anything is possible in the world of sports. The Cleveland Browns could win the Super Bowl, the Lakers might not suck this season, and hockey could overtake baseball in terms of popularity.
Remember, possible…not probable.