Monday, July 10, 2006

What the NHL Can Learn From the World Cup

The World Cup of soccer (football) completed with Italy winning the tournament. It was a huge sporting event seen throughout the world. Although it has some attention in the United States, it is hardly as big an event in America as it is in the rest of the world.

I think the NHL should view that as its model for growth. Instead of trying to change itself to fit in the US market, it should notice that hockey is already a big sport in many parts of Europe and pursue those markets. If the NHL does have a need to expand I recommend European expansion. It would not be easy to form an inter-continental hockey league, but the markets would be there. This is unlike expansion into the southern US where some of the markets are very soft and cannot support a team unless it is a winner.

One of the most odd things to pop up was a thread on hfboards about what soccer can learn from the NHL. Soccer is huge worldwide. The NHL is at best a cottage industry in many parts of the US. This is entirely backwards. Of course the hockey fans (largely unaware that the NHL should learn from soccer) suggest that they do all kinds of weird stunts to increase goal scoring and get rid of the number of ties. Take soccer down the same path of the NHL.

I think that the NHL should learn from soccer that in most of the world, low scoring sports can have a following. Ties in sports are perfectly acceptable. If the american non-hockey fan disagrees, that is too bad for him. The NHL shouldn't change to accomodate the non-fans. They should seek out people who love hockey. If that means partially abandoning the US in favor of Europe, that could be a move that is worthwhile in terms of both economics and in terms of growing the sport.

As a Canadian living in Israel for many years, I couldn't help but get exposed to soccer, but except for a period in the late 80s when I was trying to understand it, haven't followed it much. This World Cup I just watched the final game. What bothers me most is the low scoring. It seems to me the game could be opened up by having fixed offside lines as in hockey. That would make the home run pass a distinct possibility at any time and create a lot of scoring opportunities. I don't know how much it is used now, but Argentina used to do an offside trap. When the ball was heading down low, instead of trying to defend possible receivers, everyone would run forward. But soccer is much too traditional a game to change the offside rule, and who am I to even suggest it?

The European section of the NHL is the thing of the future barring Russia's returning to a closed society or being dominated totally by the criminal element, and a sure winner. But it really awaits supersonic jet travel. The Concorde wasn't it, but they'll get it right sometime in this century. I agree the distorted emphasis the media gaves to TV ratings in the states as a measure of hockey's fan base is absurd, since the fan base is deep and wide globally. Furthermore, they are going to start measuring not viewers of TV programs, but viewers of commercials, and when that happens the advertisers will realize they lose a lot less money on hockey than other sports, since they don't reach anywhere near the viewers for their ads they think they do. Hockey has a preponderance of small-market and Canadian franchises and some of the big ones such as Chicago are atrophied, so they can't expect to draw big TV audiences from big city partisans any time soon. I hope they forget about expansion for another decade at least.

Finally any word on the Russia signing the NHL agreement? It was announced with trumpets in mid-June but since then nothing except that Malkin's team is still fighting it tooth and nail, and who knows what unsavory characters lurk in the background capable of screwing things up?
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