September 12, 2008
Every time I read about the Toronto Maple Leafs fretting about the future of their elephantine fan base, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
From today's Globe & Mail, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment executive vice-president Tom Anselmi talks about why the team needs to develop more young fans "at the grassroots level":
Anselmi believes Leafs fans are aging, similar to what the Toronto Blue Jays have experienced since their halcyon days as back-to-back World Series winners 15 years ago. What concerns the Leafs is how little youth are interested in hockey today.
Anselmi cited statistics such as minor-hockey participation in the Greater Toronto Hockey League having gone down to 37,000 from 46,000 in the past decade, as well as the changing face of the city. Fifty per cent of the people who live in the Toronto area were born outside Canada, and by 2018, studies predict, 50 per cent of the population in Toronto will be visible minorities.
"We worry about the growth of hockey and we need to invest more in its development, make it more accessible, be leaders in growing the game and engaging new fans," Anselmi said."
(We'll allow a brief moment for you to wipe the recently-spit coffee from your monitor after learning that there's a hockey accessibility problem IN TORONTO, CANADA. Moving on.)
While years of bungled management and three steps back for every step forward should have sufficiently jaded any potential new Leafs fan, this problem isn't exclusively Toronto's. The fact is that the Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, the two pillars of Canadian hockey, have treated the next generations of hockey fans with an arrogance and hubris that would be inexcusable if the NHL hadn't been doing the same thing for the last 15 years.
The Globe & Mail reports that "waning interest in hockey at the grassroots level in Quebec has long been a concern of Montreal Canadiens." So the Habs initiated a plan where every Grade 5 student in greater Montreal received a free ticket to a game. The Leafs only have a handful of unsold tickets at the start of each season, so they opted for the desperation of a free exhibition game this season.
We all know ticket prices are a huge obstacle for attracting young fans, whether with their families or after they can drive themselves to the game. That's why the "premium" price gouging by NHL franchises does more to hurt their growth than to sustain it.
But the "get'em through the gate" mentality should only be a part of the NHL's marketing to younger generations of fans. Fact is that changing racial and cultural demographics affect every city in North America. Every form of entertainment is having to shift its approach while societal norms have shifted.
But speaking universally, when it comes to young fans: Every generation has its hula-hoop, and the NHL hasn't figured out a way to seem cool to the kids for about two decades.
Crosby and Ovechkin will help. The Winter Classic helps. But the League still hasn't made the technological and financial sacrifices to make hockey more compelling on television, and its attempts at capturing the imagination of casual fans online has had its successes (video content) and its relative failures (social networking). The Web has unlimited potential in attracting young fans, and it's good to see that the Leafs are trying to use it:
Besides the free exhibition game, the Leafs will refurbish more outdoor and indoor arenas throughout Toronto in their Hard Hats for Hockey program, improve their website site because studies show the young people obtain their information more from the Internet and their cellphones than television and have more open practices and player community access.
But there are some franchises, with out-of-the-box marketing forces at their helms, that are figuring it out. It's interesting to see where an old war horse like Toronto turns for advice on how to get the young'ins interested in hockey. From the Globe & Mail:
The first step in this process was some of the Leafs marketing employees also met with the Chicago Blackhawks, a franchise that has been successful in recapturing its hockey fans with several moves last season.
Gary Bettman has always been criticized for not being "a hockey guy" after coming over from the NBA. Well, Blackhawks president John McDonough is a baseball guy. So one lesson is that the NHL shouldn't be afraid to reach across the aisle for help from another sport's brain-trust.
The other lesson is that, perhaps, this intermingling of sports works better locally than globally ... and that picking the right man for the job, which Bettman has never been, is always the most essential factor.