To paraphrase the great Mark Messier, “I played with a lot of great players. They are all the same. They take a lot of responsibility for their own play and put tremendous pressure on themselves to perform at the highest level; such is hockey. It’s a great game.”
The National Hockey League (NHL) is taking care of its own, very well. They signed a peace accord this spring (read: Collective Bargaining Agreement) without the fanfare or dramatics that have coloured previous negotiations. They took control of the pending broadcast contract negotiations by putting them off for the remainder of 2020 to see how the NFL fares. And they have buttoned-down their back-to-work process successfully.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing protocols that are currently in place, professional sports are being broadcast by major networks with empty stadiums and arenas. The effect is fascinating, and the current “big three” leagues in North America are experiencing varied results. The National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the NHL are currently in play. The NFL believes they will be ready to go by Sept. 10, right on time — good luck to them.
Right now just may be a great opportunity for the NHL to make gains in market share.
NHL Markets a More Entertaining Product
It is widely agreed that the NHL is currently doing the best job marketing and broadcasting the game in comparison to the NBA and MLB. Some of that is intentional, some of it is about being in the right game at the right time.
See the initial viewer numbers from NBC.
The NHL benefits from the luxury of marketing a game that is fast, hard-hitting and very intense in comparison to the other two. Therefore, the game is more entertaining when you strip away the so-called atmosphere that the 20,000 people bring to an NBA event or 50,000 to 75,000 to a live NFL game.
Baseball is the national pastime in the US and is an outing that markets itself as a leisurely day at the park, which is great for families, corporate events, or just anyone wanting to relax to take in a game and a few wobbly pops.
Unfortunately, teams are missing up to a dozen regular players who have opted out. Some games are apparently being cancelled altogether and they have restarted with games that are more meaningless than the NHL and NBA who moved swiftly into playoff mode.
There is no atmosphere in the empty and cavernous 50,000-75,000-seat stadiums with cardboard cutouts as spectators and fake stadium noise. It may only catch on after 60 near-meaningless regular-season games have been played — and it still may not then.
On the other hand, basketball is a step up in terms of the pacing, tempo, and excitement over baseball (sans crowd). However, the speed and the shooting remain within regular human speed, so TV and streaming just cannot do the game justice. The NBA play is currently great, but the game seems slowed down without the close-in proximity of the fans that typically sit just one row back of the play. As the hardwood is nearly half the size of a hockey rink (94’ x 50’ vs 200’ x 85’), it’s intimate for the season-ticket holder. No boards, closed-in benches, glass, or netting. They are really missing that piece of the atmosphere puzzle while playing in what looks like a community recreation centre.
NHL Players, Although a Little Rusty, Are Fresh
The NHL playoffs typically start after an 82-game regular season that leaves players out of the lineup who are injured, some playing beat up and many just plain tired. The playoffs, although always intense, is survival of the last player skating. Not this time around. After nearly four months off — longer than a typical offseason — pretty much every single elite player is fresh, injury-free, and skating well.
Although there is some rust, this is countered by a high level of fitness. Hockey players can skate up to 32/kph and can hit each other at near full speed, sometimes with spectacular results — not so in the other leagues.
Puck movement during the power play or on the rush can result in plays happening from one end of the 200-foot rink to the other in just two or three seconds. The television viewers do not need the live crowd to enhance the effect of the quick transition game. In contrast, the NFL needs crowds. Marching the football up the field before losing possession can take the entire length of an NHL intermission.
The NHL has an advantage of hosting bubble locations in the cities of Toronto and Edmonton where infection numbers are comparatively low. While the US exploded to the highest rate of infection in the world, with Florida being one of the primary hot spots in the US, players are opting out of MLB altogether.
For the MLB, a 60-game schedule is set, and teams are kept to their own geographical area — but no bubble. Some baseball teams have been experiencing a new positive case per day, like the Arizona Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins.
Fortune Doesn’t Always Favour the Bold
Meanwhile, the NFL is looking to go forward with a full season. Apparently, they are rumoured to be looking at having spectators sign a waiver to indemnify the league, teams, and buildings in case fans contract the coronavirus while in attendance. Good luck with that plan. It is a recipe for legal chaos.
The NFL is the most successful league. As mentioned in an earlier editorial, they have nowhere to go but down and may suffer from their cavalier approach to the restart program.
The NHL has everything to gain right now. The opportunity is nigh upon the league to expand market share. By all appearances the NHL seems to be doing all the right things and in the parlance of the oft-used phrase, “you have to be lucky to be good and you have to be good to be lucky,” the NHL is fortunate to be in the right game at the right time.