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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The End of Hockey For How Long? Now that the Lighting have broken the hearts of Canadians everywhere, the focus shifts to how much longer it will be before another NHL game is played. Many predict that it will be a long time and that hockey will look much different when it returns. Thomas Boswell has an interesting piece on the disaster towards which hockey is moving. As he correctly points out, the labor dispute mirrors that of major league baseball’s 1994 strike, but with one big difference:

    Baseball is America's national pastime. Hockey is Canada's national pastime. Yet the NHL is counting on American fans and American dollars to come back to the NHL the way they came back to baseball. What business would take such a bet-the-industry risk? What union would tempt such career suicide for its members?

As Boswell correctly points out, the potential damage for hockey, a sport already hanging by a thread, is great:

    Here's the kicker, the wild card, the enormous factor the NHL seems not to have considered. The imminent danger for hockey is that if it does anything as destructive as baseball did in '94-'95, the NHL may lose its status alongside the NFL, MLB and NBA as a major professional team sport.

    "Major" is a vague but invaluable distinction conferred in the public mind. Some sports, some events, are major. Some aren't. There's no election, no referendum. Nobody calls to tell you on the day you move from one category to the other. But, over time, it happens. And for years hockey has been slipping back toward "minor." In its most recent TV contract, the NHL accepted terms that were comparable to the Arena Football League.

    Once a major sport falls back into the pack of wannabes, it never recovers. Once, prize fighting and horse racing were huge national sports, far bigger than hockey has ever dreamed of being. Does hockey understand that if it shrinks in popularity as much as boxing and horse racing that it will not just be small, it will almost be invisible? Can you say, bowling? Actually, that would be an insult to bowling with its large participant base.

Actually, hockey’s main concern should be NASCAR. As hockey talks about canceling one season or more, NASCAR continues to schedule races is more major markets, including talks of a race track near New York City. NASCAR’s ratings continue to rise, as does attendance and sponsorship numbers. Soon, I predict that NASCAR might even have a viable “minor league,” similar to the Busch series, but with races held on the smaller, more historic NASCAR tracks that are losing races to the big markets. Fans in these areas will still be hungry for racing, even with slightly less talented drivers, and this will only increase NASCAR’s bottom line and mass appeal. By the time hockey gets back, it may be no more than a “has been” in the pantheon of major sports. And the sad part is: no one involved seems to understand this.


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