How the NHL Can “Grow the Game” In Non-Traditional Markets

Posted by Kyle Kosior in Columns,Editorials on May 18, 2009 — 11 Comments

The recent foibles of the Phoenix Coyotes have re-ignited the debate as to where NHL hockey teams should be located. The NHL officially states that they prefer to keep the teams in Southern markets to grow the game of hockey, but in reality its likely more a case of Bettman and Co. not wanting to admit that the expansion was a failure. After a dozen plus years in most of the markets, it seems pretty safe to say that many of these southern teams are in trouble.

Taking Bettman’s claim about growing the game at face value and applying it to these same markets, you see that there is a better success story with the youth hockey market. Dallas, Phoenix, Florida and even Carolina all have thriving hockey programs for kids and all compete quite successfully on the US AAA hockey stage. The Dallas Stars AAA and PF Changs (Phoenix) AAA programs are both graduating many players into the college and junior hockey ranks, and the other teams likely aren’t far behind. While not widespread, there is certainly a grassroots affinity for hockey in these areas and good athletes are eschewing the traditional paths of football and basketball to play hockey.

That brings me to the point I am trying to make. If the NHL really does want to grow the game, why don’t they take the money they use propping up failing franchises and invest it in youth hockey. Exclusively in youth hockey. The AAA teams I mentioned are an American success story, with motivated parents raising funds and soliciting big name sponsors to allow their teams to travel all over the US, Canada and even Europe to compete in high level tournaments and in some cases even league play.  They are hiring qualified and motivated coaches, and the kids get the best instruction possible. However, these teams also have their monetary limits and not every kid can afford the sometimes steep fees that are associated with the programs. This is where the NHL steps in.

Since socialism is all the rage in the US these days, why not let these programs suckle from the government (NHL) teat for a while? If the multi-million dollar investment of team bailout money is too much for the league, perhaps they should consider giving the nearly $7 million dollars they handed out to USA Hockey a more even distribution (look out college kids, I am stealing your Marxist thunder) and invest in a more comprehensive hockey building program in the US. Since most of the aforementioned $7 million gets eaten up by the USNTDP and its sixty-odd kids on two teams, wouldn’t it make more sense to get that money to these various AAA (and other) programs where hundreds of kids could be helped?

Geographically speaking, most of the NTDP kids are from Michigan or Minnesota, two places that really don’t need help enticing kids to play hockey. Perhaps with the NHL money going to Florida, Arizona or Utah etc, a couple of their kids could graduate to the NHL, which would undoubtedly spur interest in youth hockey. Look at the effect Gretzky coming to Los Angelese had. Its not out of the question to think this could happen elsewhere.

Is it reasonable to counter that the NHL propping up the failing franchises basically has the same effect as investing in youth hockey? Are the kids in these regions driven to hockey because they are watching the ‘Canes, Coytoes or Panthers? Perhaps some are, but there is no substitute for playing the game. Its just too easy to flip past the game on tv to find a more recognizable game than it is to stop on Versus and investigate. But, you get that same kid on skates and chances are they will get hooked. Plus, its not like kids growing up in Saskatchewan, the Maritimes or Toronto need to be close to an NHL team to get interested in hockey. Likewise, kids in Phoenix or South Florida would survive and continue to play if their NHL teams left town. If Gary Bettman and the league administration wants a good way to capture some positive PR and to leave a valuable legacy, an increased investment in American youth hockey is the way to go.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Drew

    Interesting points Kyle. If I can boil down your argument into a nutshell, you are advocating that the NHL should invest in youth hockey to build up the game from the grassroots up, which, in effect, is an admission by the NHL that their top down approach has failed to this point.

    Also, you might have to repress your anger over the failed Conservative movement for a while. Liberalism the new pink which is the new black.

  • Bigger Tex

    As someone who is intimately familiar with non-traditional market hockey (being born and raised in the Dallas area), I have a few thoughts on the subject:

    1. Investing in youth hockey in the southern U.S. without a local NHL franchise present will yield near-zero results. The NHL franchise is needed to draw attention to the sport. Minor league hockey existed in Dallas (in various forms) from the 1960′s until the Stars moved to town, but it garnered attention and support only from a small core of die-hard, transplanted Yankees and a handful of enlightened souls (such as, after 22 FEB 1980, my family and me). As a kid, I could only play what you Canadians call “road hockey”, because there were just two hockey rinks in the greater Dallas area, and it was cost-prohibitive for my brothers and me to play. Since the Stars moved to Dallas, the local youth hockey scene has exploded. Today, I can think of seventeen local sheets of ice off the top of my head, and there are over 60 high school hockey teams. Simply put, were it not for the arrival (and subsequent success) of the Stars in Dallas, the local hockey landscape would still be the wasteland it was in the 70′s and 80′s, and most (if not all) of the young hockey studs coming out of Texas now would instead be playing football or baseball.

    2. The key to turning around the struggling southern franchises is SUCCESS. The Coyotes and Panthers haven’t made any noise in the playoffs in years (and the argument can certainly be made that Phoenix has never had a serious playoff run), and the Thrashers’ lone trip ended abruptly with a sweep at the hands of the Rangers. If these teams could get into the playoffs AND STAY IN LONG ENOUGH TO GENERATE EXCITEMENT LOCALLY, they could dramatically improve their status in the local sports hierarchy and sell tickets, rather than giving them away. In this respect, the Coyotes, Thrashers and Panthers are no different from the Islanders, Bruins and to an extent, the (William Wirtz-era) Blackhawks.

    3. In my blog of 6 MAY, “What Canada Doesn’t Understand About Hockey” (http://theogablog.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-canada-doesnt-understand-about.html), I advanced the argument that NHL franchises in the southern U.S., by generating excitement and spurring growth of local youth hockey programs, are helping expand the NHL’s talent pool. This should, in a few short years, allow the NHL to expand to 32 teams without the significant decrease in the league’s overall talent level that we saw in the 1990′s and early 2000′s. When the NHL is ready to expand again, I personally would like to see a second franchise in Toronto and a rebirth of the Winnipeg Jets, but I think a more likely scenario would be one new Canadian club and another in Kansas City (cringe), Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle or Houston. I’d like to see Gary Bettman continue to grow The Great Game, while rewarding the nation of it’s birth.

    And that’s my two cents (you can keep the change).

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com david

    Bigger Tex,

    Interesting response. Always appreciate getting a local perspective.

  • ladders11

    I think the general population’s interest level in hockey reflects the fact that it is an intense and involved sport to play. The cost and time invested, as well as parental involvement, are greater than any other sport, bar none. This should never be underestimated. I grew up playing hockey but if someone at school showed interest you couldn’t just invite them to play – first thing they’d have to shell out money for skates and spend a year learning. If their interest comes at age 13 or 14, well, they’re basically too late.

    Personally I don’t fret about the lack of national interest in hockey, I understand it is what it is. Canadians might hate the Southern expansion, but the population is heading south and west. The South and West are growing while the Northeast is shrinking. At the same time, the population is becoming more diverse. Those who are interested in the long-term prominence of the sport need to consider the demographics. The pure fact is that for hockey to succeed and grow, we need to start seeing some Mexicans on ice.

    I could see it either way: if the NHL contracts back to Canada and the Northern US, the only national broadcasts will be online; if they stay with the Southern expansion, grow the sport, and include diversity, they might one day ascend to cultural significance.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Kyle

    Tex, thanks for your comment. I have a few questions/counterpoints.

    1. What would your response be to the growth, if not the immediate success of the Chadders’ AAA program in Utah. They have had minor league hockey for some years, and though they aren’t a Southern market per se, they are certainly non-traditional. Kids are flocking to that increasingly successful AAA program. Same goes for the Las Vegas Stars program.

    2. I totally agree with the success angle (see Chicago) but how long is too long to wait? The lack of success that some of these franchises have exhibited is hurting the team on and off the ice. It may be years before they ever break the cycle, so does the NHL keep supporting them or should the money go into youth hockey in the area, or elsewhere? Even if success does come, will the fans stay when the times are bad?

    3. I agree that the talent pool can be increased by aiding these markets, with large populations in the key demographics. I still contend a local NHL team isn’t necessary, see Las Vegas and Utah. IF expansion is the way to go, I agree that it is time to reward areas with established fan bases, instead of trying to create from scratch. On that note, is it best to plant the youth hockey seed first, then investigate expansion?

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Kyle

    Ladders, thanks also for your comment.

    I am a keen fan of demographic shifts, and agree that the SW is the place to be these days. That being said, do you think that an NHL team is necessary for the game. Do the So. Cal teams provide enough of a regional presence? Does Dallas?

    I agree that hockey can be expensive, which is why I was advocating for the NHL to steer the bailout money to youth hockey. A little subsidy can go a long ways for families starting out. Just as 1st and 2nd generation Canadians are flocking to the game, I think the NHL should make inroads to the Mexican/Latin American population.

  • ladders11

    You have a great point – rather than the success of an NHL team in a city like Phoenix, a better measure for the success of the sport would be the number of 1st generation youth hockey players.

    I’m on the fence as to whether the NHL is necessary to that. As Tex is saying in the post above about the Dallas area, the NHL can have a major influence getting rinks built (an action requiring local political support or money) and spurring interest in the game. It’s also a good reminder that Dallas, Colorado, and San Jose have been very successful while Phoenix and Florida haven’t. I would guess that the NHL can cause a “tipping point” in a metro area in a way that minor leagues can’t, because the minors don’t have the traditions, the celebrity talent, the continuity, or the television broadcasting.
    It seems like the minor leagues (remember the Roller HL?) always blowup.

    I believe teams and/or the league also literally build and operate local rinks to support the NHL franchises. I might be wrong, but I think the Ducks and Panthers both built or own rinks.

  • Bigger Tex

    Kyle, I must admit that I had to do some research on both the Chadders’ and Las Vegas Stars’ programs before responding. Setting aside my previous opinions about hockey in non-traditional markets, my best explanation for the success of these programs would be as follows:

    The Chadders’ AAA program came into being in 2005. Is it possible that the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City helped give birth to this program? I’ll admit that may be a bit of a stretch, but I can’t rule it out completely. I do agree, however, that Utah is a “non-traditional” market, but there is one significant difference between The Beehive State and, say, Florida: Winter Sports. I submit that it’s still a novelty for kids in most of the southern U.S. to go ice skating, but it’s much more likely to occur in areas where winter sports are commonplace. Ladders made an excellent point about not being able to simply invite your friends out to play hockey in the southern U.S. – odds are, your friend had never been on the ice. On the other hand, if you live in Utah, I’m guessing the odds are pretty good that your friend knows how to skate.

    As for the success of the Las Vegas Stars program…their head coach is Pokey Reddick! How could they NOT be successful? ;-) Seriously, my best guess is that everyone in Las Vegas is from somewhere else, and many of those people are from the Northeast…and there’s enough money in LV to get things done, like building an ice rink in the desert. And, while they only have a minor league team, Las Vegas hosts several adult rec league tournaments every year, so there’s a fairly consistent, though low-key, hockey vibe in the city.

    How long is too long to wait? Excellent question…and one which I’m not sure I can answer. I could be way off base here, but my impression is that the NHL generally takes a “hands-off” approach once a franchise is awarded. When you’ve awarded a franchise to inexperienced local ownership in a non-traditional market, that’s a pretty significant risk. In this economy, I don’t believe the NHL can afford to do that any longer. Were I in Gary Bettman’s shoes, for example, I would contact the Thrashers ownership tomorrow with a list of potential replacements for Don Waddell and a strong “suggestion” that they begin conducting interviews. I wonder how much support the NHL Marketing Department provides to individual franchises? Couldn’t they do more – perhaps by partnering with local marketing groups to find the most effective way to sell The Great Game to the local populace? I guess what I’m getting at is that the struggling southern clubs need more than just cash from the league to cover payroll and keep the ice cold; they need active assistance from the NHL in selling/growing the game at the local level…and yes, that certainly includes youth hockey. Unless Mr. Bettman can say, “We’ve tried everything, and hockey just won’t work in (blank),” however, I don’t think it’s time to pull the plug on any particular franchise.

    While I certainly applaud the success of the youth programs in Utah and Las Vegas, I’m afraid those are exceptions, rather than the rule. Ladders is right about NHL franchises getting rinks built: The Dallas Stars, in partnership with local city governments, have built two-sheet rinks in four Dallas-area communities, and have a limited partnership (sponsorship) in two others. Without the Dallas Stars’ presence, those rinks would not exist, and youth hockey would still be an oddity in North Texas. Today, the NAHL’s Texas Tornado play at the Stars’ headquarters facility. Again, without the Stars, the Tornado wouldn’t exist.

    I think going the “youth hockey first, then an expansion NHL franchise” route might work in communities in which winter sports are commonplace – in other words, where there is an existing familiarity with hockey at some level – but in places like the southern U.S., you’ve got to have the NHL franchise first, to generate interest in playing the game. I often think of my own hockey background: The Miracle On Ice was the first hockey game I ever saw. I was almost nine years old, and was completely oblivious to hockey until that day. Sadly, many of my fellow Texans remained oblivious until the Stars moved to Dallas. That’s what it takes in non-traditional markets: a game-changing event of some sort.

    As for reaching out to the Mexican market, check out the success of the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees and Laredo Bucks of the CHL – they drew an average of 4610 and 4158 fans, respectively, per game this season. If the NHL isn’t reaching out to those clubs, they’re missing the boat.

    I’m sure I’ve rambled on quite enough for one day, but I’d like to say that I really appreciate a good debate/discussion. Thanks for giving me food for thought!

  • Johnny B

    Yes, the Panthers did build and own one of the six local ice rinks. Theirs is a two rink job with hockey pretty much constantly, figure skating lessons and tournaments, hockey tournaments and open skates. Oh, and when there’s time and space, the Panthers and visiting NHL teams practice there. They’re actually building a third sheet for the Panthers to practice on, so they can have the other two in constant use, plus a third for hockey tournaments.

    The other two Broward County rinks have a lot of youth and adult hockey. Some of that would (and indeed, did) happen without the Panthers, but their presence certainly helps youth hockey.

    I know a lot of people up north like to generalize about the “sun belt,” but South Florida is its own weird thing. Think of it as an ex-pat community rather than a “Southern” one. The fact that so many people here came from somewhere else (including me; I grew up in Sabres country) hurts all of the local sports teams, save the Dolphins. When the local teams win, they sell tickets. When the Rangers, Leafs, Canadiens and Sabres are in town, the snowbirds pack the BAC. There are some transplants like myself who regularly go to games or are season ticket holders. I also know a few people from here who have been season ticket holders from the beginning, along with some who signed up when they moved to Sunrise.

    The key, though, is the children. A lot of transplants come to cheer for their hometown team, but the only hometown team their kids know are the local teams. The children are playing sports here and are growing up watching the Panthers, Marlins, Heat and Dolphins. More than once I’ve seen Rangers fans at games whose children are wearing Panthers gear. In the short term, getting in the playoffs will help the Panthers. In the long term, the team being generally competitive while those children are growing up and pushing youth hockey (which is something they seem to do fairly well) will be what makes long-term fans.

    I do also agree that the NHL should support US youth hockey, as that may be where they will need to grow their talent.

  • Danielle James

    This is a great discussion. I’ve only just discovered IC and have been reading back in the (cumbersome, Handsome D) archives, but I don’t see any previous comments from you JB, BT and L11. Are you newcomers as well? Given your thoughtful comments on this post I’d like to read more.

    I agree strongly with your comments on NHL cities and youth hockey and on how the children are the key. There are programs in Canada to help kids acquire equipment. I’m sure the CAHA and similar bodies and Canadian Tire would be happy to share their programs and experience with any individuals or groups in your communities who asked.

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