Let's try this again … we had some server issues and this post from January 1 was lost along with the comments. I have recreated most of the content and added some Low Hanging Fruit as a reward for those of you reading this twice.
Welcome to 2017 sports media watchers. Quick post this morning to keep the content fresh for you. Jonah and I are working on a number of changes here at TSM for the coming year which we plan to discuss with you in the weeks to come. If you have ideas for what you'd like to see more and less of feel free to start that conversation in the comments.
Topic: The NHL's Olympic Strategy
One of the main talking points in 2016 was whether the NHL would continue to participate in the Olympics in 2018 and beyond. This will soon be resolved as news broke that the league is drafting up two different scheduled for the 2017-18 season. Bill Daly puts the NHL's position thusly:
“As the commissioner (Gary Bettman) alluded to in the past, that’s not the only issue, there has to be a compelling reason for us to go to the Olympics at this point. As I stand here, we’re still searching for that reason.”
Several writers have criticized the NHL for being out of touch with how the rest of the world views its product. Here is Barry Svrluga at the Washington Post:
"There are certain sports that need the Olympics. The World Figure Skating Championships are just that and no more. Did you realize they’re coming up in March in Helsinki? No? But by this point next year, you might recognize some of the American hopefuls as the field takes shape for Olympic gold in PyeongChang. Hockey, like so many other sports, can fall in on its own sense of self-importance […] Get sucked into that world, and it’s easy to forget how few countries play hockey, how few markets are obsessed with it, how few people actually see it. The Olympics offer that exposure — surely for an individual player but also for an entire sport. The World Cup? Canada noticed, for sure. The Olympics? Everyone notices."
If you have ever lived in the US this point is obvious. The NHL has a low national profile that reaches its peak if an interesting American team is in playing in the Cup finals. This is akin to the way NASCAR has tons of events all year but only registers nationally for the Daytona 500. During the Winter Olympics hockey takes centre stage in the American consciousness for a while. It's a high profile team sport with which the USA has a strong historical connection.
So there is a reason to go to South Korea, even if Gary Bettman doesn't see it: it keeps your sport in the mind of an audience that needs reminding that your sport exists year round and not just every 4 years.
Further, as Michael Traikos writes in the National Post, there is another group of people who the NHL might be interested in courting. Approximately 39 million Chinese people tuned in to watch the NBA all-star game. That's more than the entire population of Canada. With the 2022 Winter Games slated for Beijing the NHL must acknowledge that 2018 would be a key piece in getting Chinese sports fans excited about hosting the world's best hockey players.
All of this is to say that the NHL is speaking falsely when they say they have yet to find a reason to go to the Olympics. A more accurate statement would be "we see all the compelling reasons but don't know how to make money off that in the short term, and so are looking for someone to help us defray the costs." Fair enough, but let's be honest about it.
Olympics vs WJC vs WCOH
Smart people will spend the next few months sorting all this out and I expect the NHL will be at the next two winter Olympics, possibly with some financial assistance from other groups. The main fly in this ointment is that the NHL threw down a silly gauntlet by hosting the World Cup O' Hockey in Toronto this year. This gave them yet another hill on which they can claim to want to die, as they negotiate with the IOC. The reason this won't get them very much is the following:
World Cup of Hockey generated less than $40M in profits, perhaps 50% less than anticipated. Via @THNKenCampbell https://t.co/VZN0ksMcdl
— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) November 23, 2016
Simply put: the WCOH is a poor substitute for Olympic hockey and everyone knows it.
My thoughts on this were prompted by listening to trooper FAN590 afternoon host Andrew Walker, who took one for the team by working steadily through the holidays. Some day last week he challenged his listeners to explain why the IIHF World Junior Championships (on TSN) is a big time event while the WCOH (on Sportsnet) is not. As he pointed out, both are very much "made-for-TV" events at this point in time, featuring highly skilled players, some of whom are representing their countries. So why is one derided while the other is adored?
This is a good question, and good for Andrew for having the courage to ask it (despite the obvious invitation for people to point out that his employer has a vested interest in downplaying the significance of the WJC). The reason this is a good question is that the answer is not obvious.
I find it easier to ask the question starting from the opposite direction: why is Olympic hockey exciting?
To me there are three variables that come together with Olympic hockey
1) National pride
2) Best players
3) Meaningful games
The WJC definitely has national pride + meaningful games. As a country we are 'devastated' when the U-20s don't bring home the gold, especially if the Americans or Russians beat us. By contrast, when we fail to take home the Spengler Cup, few people feel anything. The players competing in the WJC know what the expectations are and you can tell this by how hard they play.
On #2, some of the best players U-20 are now in the NHL and not at the WJC. This is a bit of a difference between the Olympics and the WJC: it doesn't represent the absolute best-on-best. But this is a small number and, injuries aside, the WJC and the Olympics both involve the best players playing as hard as possible for their country.
So what's missing from the WCOH? Well, for me, the biggest omission is #3. There is nothing the NHL could do to make these September games meaningful to the level that we see in the WJC or Olympics. Part if that is timing: the WCOH takes place when training camps are getting going, and no one wants to get hurt. The players who attend are all stars and the promise of an extra million dollars will certainly raise the stakes, but not enough to tangibly affect play on the ice.
Another problem for the WCOH is #1. The national pride involved is highly artificial. When one of your countries is "Europe" and another Young North American Stars then it is very hard to get one's patriotic juices flowing for the outcome.
Therefore, while there is a continuity between the Olympics and the WJC with age being the main differentiator, there is no real connection between the WCOH and the Olympics. It pales by comparison. This is why the NHL's strategy of trying to replace the Olympics with a home brewed alternative is a loser.
Other Options for the NHL
Gary has been very clear that the opinions of people who are not part of the NHL don't matter to him very much so I'm not expecting much to change in the years to come. As always, Gary knows best.
Here are some ideas to improve to the WCOH by differentiating it from the Olympics so that the two are no longer compared to each other. There are obvious logistical issues but right now I am just interested in the conceptual stage.
A) Move the concept closer to the WJC than to the Olympics
Here is what I mean: they could host an NHL rookies vs Junior All-Stars tournament. This would suck some cachet away from the WJC. Imagine watching the top young stars in the NHL compete against players who will be high draft picks in the upcoming off-season. You could cap it at U-22 so the age range would be 17-21.
This would still allow for some national pride, e.g. Canadian NHL Rookies and Canadian Undrafted Stars. You could do the same for Team Europe and Team USA. This would be a small tournament featuring only young NHL players and soon to be NHL players, but it automatically has more interest to me than the current WCOH. The meaningfulness of the games would not rival Olympic hockey but it could rival the WJC.
B) Get away from national teams and go regional
Here is what I have in mind: suppose the teams were Team Ontario, Team Quebec, Team Alberta, Team BC, Team Prairies, and Team Atlantic Canada. Then add in Team Scandinavia, Team Central Europe, Team USA (northern states), and Team USA (southern states).
As Canadians, we would love this format. People from Quebec are always extolling the virtues of their minor league hockey programs and this format would test out where the best NHL players come from. This would be a bigger tournament focusing on province/state of origin but it automatically has more interest to me than the current WCOH. The meaningfulness of the games would not be amazing, but one could imagine it falling into the mould of the World Baseball Classic. Fun, but still competitive.
Anyway, those are some thoughts on what to do about the WCOH going forward. Option #1 should be killing it, or using it as a replacement for the All-Star game. Failing that, the NHL should reconceptualize it either as a showcase for young talent or as a way to inject regional rather than national pride.
Low Hanging Fruit
- This column on teams hiring reporters to write for team owned websites raises lots of points, some of which are well made.
- Jonah Keri delivers a must-read on the Jays. I'll be curious to see how much discussion this gets on Sportsnet, since a lot of it is damning of the job Shapiro has done and Keri has been a regular guest on the FAN (and on TSN). Update: Jonah was on PTS with heir apparent Jeff Blair on Jan 3rd. Nice work Matt Marchese.
- The ticket sales for the WJC have been weak. It will be interesting to see how the ratings are. Last year TSN saw huge numbers for many matches, averaging 2.1 million viewers for Team Canada's games. TSN execs must be praying they make it past the QF round this year.
- We are 6 weeks away from the 1 year anniversary of the last big changes at both the FAN590 (Brady out) & TSN1050 (Overdrive, N&L in the morning, Richards to afternoons).
- Speaking of Mike Richards, he has been tweeting and retweeting up a storm lately about his impending return.
- Nice to see the FAN giving some of the bench talent some reps. I just wish it wasn't all on the same day.
- BONUS: How could I forget the greatest 15 seconds of radio of 2016. Here's Richard Deitsch telling Bob and Shannon — two popular subjects of conversation on TSM — how much he likes the work we do here. The awkward silence is priceless.
thanks for reading and commenting, sorry for the comments that were lost
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)
photo credit: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images