Make NHL pay, hockey fans and sponsors, for their ‘classic’ nuclear winter strategy
VANCOUVER — Not to be a contrarian here, but all the gnashing of teeth over the National Hockey League’s reported intention to cancel the Bridgestone Winter Classic later this week is completely misplaced.
If the league does it, it won’t be despite the fact that it was Toronto versus Detroit, two storied franchises, a first inclusion of a Canadian team, in all ways a potential bonanza.
It will be precisely because Gary Bettman and his soulless owners — and their crisis management team and the lockout specialists at the law firm of Proskauer Rose and whoever else is advising the NHL on acceptable risks — have concluded that in those two hockey markets, the game is bulletproof, backlash-proof.
Torontonians return to the ticket windows like trained pigs every year, no matter how terrible the Maple Leafs are, how much they charge for a seat and a beer and a hotdog, how many generations go by without any real sense of something good in the offing.
Detroit is Hockeytown, USA. The Red Wings, at the opposite end of the performance scale from the sorry Leafs, consistently reward their intensely loyal fan base with excellent ownership, management, players and prospects.
Whenever hockey comes back, no matter how shabbily the two sides in this labour war treat them, whatever the fallout might be in lesser markets, Bettman and his henchmen know that Detroit and Toronto will never punish them for their sins. And the casual fan will forget it was supposed to be on, anyway.
Sure, the league will lose the record ticket and merchandise revenue the game at massive Michigan Stadium would have generated, but compared to the cost of wiping out the entire pre-New Year’s schedule, it’s a drop in the bucket.
Indeed, if the Winter Classic is cancelled — and whatever might be announced this week doesn’t make it so, because there is a certain air of scripted-ness to this whole dog-and-pony show that defies accepting at face value anything either side may say — you can be sure the NHL will simply re-schedule for a year hence. Big House, here we come again. No hard feelings, eh? No harm done.
Only I’m not sure the league has done its calculations correctly, on that last bit.
Because if cancelling the Winter Classic — one of the brilliant strokes to emerge from the last lockout, when the league knew it had to come back better, more appealing and with more fresh new ideas than at any time in its history — doesn’t cause harm, and plenty of it, then shame on all of us.
Shame on the media, for chasing the non-negotiating committees around the continent, or lining up like groupies at the players’ shinny games to beg for a quote, reinforcing the notion that we are hopelessly lost without them. Shame on the fans for railing at the players and owners, swearing they will never, ever, ever come back this time — and then coming back, anyway. You know you will.
But mostly, shame on the league’s corporate partners, for getting back into bed with an outfit that exhibits an unfathomable arrogance towards its customers and, by extension, takes for granted the customers of those TV networks and car makers and tire manufacturers, those breweries and fast food outlets, those banks and video games.
It’s the “Bridgestone” Winter Classic. Huge investment. It’s on NBC, the network that — after years of watching hockey wander aimlessly in the U.S. television wasteland — paid the NHL $2 billion over 10 years for rights to air its product, kicking off each season’s slate of network games with the breathlessly-hyped extravaganza on New Year’s Day.
If HBO, whose “24/7, Road to the Winter Classic” documentaries have been an enormous boon to the profile of hockey and its players the last couple of seasons, doesn’t tell the NHL to take a hike after this, it will be a miracle.
How happy can NBC — which will pay the league its $200 million this year, lockout or not — be if it has no sports property on a holiday when hockey is supposed to fill three or four hours of programming time? Thanks for nothing, NHL. How happy can the companies be that were to have advertised on the telecast as part of their overall commitment to hockey, when their best audience of the season is lost?
My old National Post colleague, Scott Burnside, raised the salient point on ESPN.com Wednesday: if you’re a sponsor, why would you touch the NHL with a 10-foot pole late in any CBA?
“And if you're a sponsor looking for a place to park your advertising or sponsorship monies,” he wrote, “why you would turn to a sport whose signature move every time it's presented with a labor negotiation is nuclear winter?”
Make no mistake: if the NHL cancels the Winter Classic, it will be for the sole purpose of sending the message that there is nothing it will not sacrifice to break down the players’ resolve. Because the New Year’s Day gigglefest is the NHL’s best property between September and April. Better, and more important, than any all-star weekend.
It will be a demonstration of the owners’ willingness to risk destroying a good deal of what the league has built in the darkest corners of Hockeydom south of the border to prove a point: that it’s their game, not ours, and certainly not the players’.
They know Canadians will never turn on them, and they can probably count on the U.S. Northeast to hang in there and shrug off another body blow. The Bruins, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins ... they’re solid.
So here’s to you, our American cousins in those markets where hockey is only followed by the few, the brave, the die-hards, or in years when the locals are doing well.
Grow a pair, people.
Make these idiots pay. Turn away. Watch something else, and don’t go back when they kiss your butt and promise you an autographed jockstrap and a buy-one, get-one-free hotdog deal. When they say the game’s going to be better and the ticket prices are going to be lower, call their bluff. Because this time, they have no grand plan to make it better, and the ticket prices are never coming down.
Except in Phoenix, of course, where the NHL beat the Christmas rush Wednesday by laying off the Coyotes’ very able manager of media relations. Best of the season to you, Tim Bulmer, from Gary and the gang.
That ought to balance the budget.
On Twitter: Twitter.com/rcamcole
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