August 20, 2008
To recap: Yahoo! Sports NHL editor Ross McKeon suggested contracting the Southeast Division. Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, disagreed quite vehemently on his blog. McKeon then penned a rebuttal to the rebuttal, asking Leonsis to contribute his own "5 ways I'd change the NHL" list. And here we are.
For the record: Ted Leonsis was one of the first individuals I invited to participate in our "5 Ways" project, but he respectfully declined, explaining that if anything on the daily lists caught his eye he'd blog about it on his own site, Ted's Take. I'm guessing the contraction of his franchise did more than catch his eye.
While Ross's justification of it is understandable, I don't agree with the idea of contraction in the NHL. Thriving businesses grow, they don't shrink; the public reaction to collapsing franchises would burn through hockey's remaining positive press like an acid bath.
Like Leonsis, I completely disagree with the idea of contracting Tampa Bay, which has blossomed into one of the most dedicated (and barely sober) fan bases in the League; and Washington, which has logged more miles as an NHL franchise than Phoenix (post Winnipeg) and Anaheim combined.
McKeon's initial post triggered a startling amount of good discussion in the blogosphere on sites like Barry Melrose Rocks, Illegal Curve, The Litter Box (awesome), The Peerless Prognosticator, Hockey Dump, On Frozen Blog, and Eric McErlain in his first post for The Sporting Blog.
But it was Leonsis's first response on Ted's Take that poured gasoline on the embers. It was smart and efficient, and came from the heart. But I can't help but question the ramifications, and potential applications, in some of his logic.
Those six teams employ thousands and thousands of people and support tens of thousands of families. I guess Ross wants us to lay off all those people in the toughest economy ever. And those teams generate dollars for their cities in taxes and they generate dollars to hundreds and hundreds of small businesses as vendor/ suppliers. All of that would go away and the benefit and glow of a major sports team franchise would leave those cities marked as second rate for a long, long time.
Would Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans or Washington Wizards fans or Atlanta Braves fans or Miami Dolphins fans consider their towns "second rate" if their respective hockey teams suddenly folded? Hell, the Marlins could leave with their World Series rings tomorrow and City Hall would get, what, three phone calls?
Leonsis goes on to stress the importance of keeping NHL players employed, because under contraction they would lose jobs and "they wouldn't then pay taxes. They wouldn't buy houses in their communities. They wouldn't support local charities ..."
Taking in the paragraph quoted above and his later points, Leonsis seems to be making a case for massive, uncapped expansion of the NHL: More jobs, more taxes, more homes purchased, more teams buying into communities.
The fiscal ramifications in the argument against contraction appear to make the argument for expansion. "Our teams are growing revenues, value and payments to players. We are essentially growth stocks," writes Leonsis.
I know about as much about the economy as John McCain, but I do know this: The more growth stocks in your portfolio, the better. Hello, 70-team NHL! (And the expansion fees that go with them, right, hockey owners?)
Also on the subject of contraction, Leonsis writes:
Fourth, fans would suffer. Why would we punish the fan bases of any city with contraction? Why would we stop playing in cities that have started to fall in love with hockey generationally? Why punish kids and families that play youth hockey and come to games and have supported the teams and have fallen in love with all of the stars in these cities?
I searched around and couldn't find Leonsis on the record regarding relocation in the NHL, something that hasn't occurred since he took over the Capitals in 1999. But I'd ask him: Would the same heart-wrenching narrative above play out for teams that leave an "unhealthy" market for greener pastures? Was this the picture you painted when Hartford traveled southeast?
Would NHL owners mournfully recall the crushed dreams of young fans in Nashville as they congratulate Jerry Bruckheimer at a cocktail reception on The Strip? Or is this just a contraction storyline?
Finally, a few reactions to this point from Leonsis:
Seventh, the South is important to media buyers and the national TV contract. Trust me. Advertisers care about these markets even if Ross doesn't.
As we covered in our breakdown of the Versus schedule, the South is nearly persona non grata on national cable television. (I don't consider D.C., which is roughly an hour away from Baltimore, to be in "the South.") The Tampa Bay Lightning, the most buzzed-about team in hockey during the off-season, and the Dallas Stars, a conference finalist, are on four times -- half the appearances of the Sabres and Wild. Atlanta is on once, Carolina is on once, Florida is on once, Nashville is on once and Phoenix is on once.
This is not an aberration: Check last year's schedule on Versus, and you'll see the same kinds of numbers for "southern" teams, all under a four-game ceiling. If these markets are critical to the national television contact, shouldn't they make more than just a cameo appearance on the schedule? Because right now, most of them feel superfluous as major national media players, at least when it comes to TV. (Obviously, there's no arguing a national footprint's role in gaining national advertisers. I might trust Leonsis on business.)
Finally, a word about, and to, the Washington Capitals fans.
I've lived in D.C. for well over a decade. I've covered high-school hockey games at 11 p.m. on a Friday night for the local newspaper, and I've covered a Game 7 at Verizon for the Caps. I've toasted beverages with hundreds of local puckheads. I've even taken one memorable (from what I can recall) tequila-filled bus trip with the team fan club down to Richmond for a minor league hockey game.
I have come to appreciate what this hockey community is, and what it isn't. And here's my theory:
There are more hockey fans in D.C. than there are Capitals fans.
This is nothing to be ashamed of, because this is the nature of the community: Full of transient government workers and college students and young urban professionals transplanted here from another part of the nation. The Penguins fans that show up for games at Verizon Center aren't busing down from Pittsburgh for the night. Ditto the Sabres fans, the Flyers fan, the Rangers fans, the Devils fans, and even that guy I saw wearing a Forsberg Avs jersey last season.
Not every fan who "Rocked the Red" during the team's playoff run last season considers his or herself primarily a Capitals fan. I know Bruins fans and Buffalo fans who own Capitals season tickets; they cheer for the home team ... unless their favorite team is on the ice with them. These are hockey fans that support the Capitals.
This is where the Washington Post has failed its readership for, oh, about 30 years: It counts empty seats at the Capitals games and uses that as a barometer for its hockey coverage; dismissing the fact that there are hockey fans who only attend a game here or there, and are still watching the NHL well after Washington's season comes to an end.
The blockbuster box office for the Capitals this summer speaks to two things: The bandwagon nature of the D.C. fan (indisputable) and the reaction from the hockey community to the current incarnation of the team. The guy who works at The Pentagon and cheered for Rod Gilbert as a young Rangers fan is buying the same season ticket as the kid who grew up in Arlington, Va. cheering for Peter Bondra -- they both love the game, and luckily have the means to watch Alexander Ovechkin 41 times a season.
Capitals fans are a proud group (to which my colleague Mr. McKeon can now attest). But what makes Washington an indispensible NHL city goes beyond the fortunes of the local team on or off the ice. For years, the naysayers have been saying D.C. will never be a Capitals town.
They miss the point: It is now, and always shall be, a hockey town.