Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Caps said to Call; So I Emailed...

I was given the business card of a Caps upper mngt employee on Saturday. He told me to give him a call this week. I decided on an email. I wonder what will come of this... ha!

Dear sir,

I met you out front of this past Saturday’s Caps home game against the Panthers. I was passing out “Fire Gary… Save the NHL” signs. You noticed and gave me your business card and told me to call you some time this week. Being that it is difficult to get away from my desk and I am not sure what would come of our phone call, I decided to email you instead. I hope you do not mind and take my email as an extension of how a huge fan base feels about the about the state of hockey.

First, let me say that I have been a Caps fan since I was 8. I am a die hard Washington area sports fan and stick with my teams through thick and thin. I attend between 8-12 Caps games a year. I never pay full ticket for a price. I am either given tickets for free or purchase discounted tickets from the “merchandisers” that frequent the front of the Verizon Center before games. I can typically get anywhere from 25-50% off a ticket if I purchase there as opposed to the Box Office. And tickets are ALWAYS available considering the Caps’ woes when it comes to attendance.

Our Gary B protest the other day was a part of something a bit larger… the decline of the NHL from the fans’ perspective over the past two years. As you are on the business side of things in hockey and I am merely a fan, I respectfully say that you might not appreciate the way a lot of traditional/average hockey fans feel about the “new NHL.” From what I read, Gary Bettman has been instrumental in putting teams in the black in recent years, the Caps being one of them. So business may very well be on the upswing for the Caps organization. Good for you and bad for us as I feel we are in for a dose of more of the “new NHL” just because the owner’s pockets are full for the time being.

My personal take, however, is that the new NHL is a water-downed, sugar coated version of what the game used to be and should be now. And when I say used to be, I mean the 1980s and early 90s, not the boring neutral zone trap hockey of the late 90s/early 00s. I think Gary Bettman has looked for quick fixes in the huge holes he has created during his tenure. The most recent fix to put money in the owners’ pockets was to move to the unbalanced schedule. While the unbalanced schedule cuts down on expensive travel costs for teams, certain teams won’t get to see Ovechkin, Semin, Crosby, and Malkin for two years at a time. Good for the owners… bad for the fans. And, of course, soon we will have the introduction of the new jerseys… the jerseys that will apparently make the game faster; 8% faster to be more specific. And, oh yeah, they cost $400 if you want to buy one fans. Good for the owners… bad for the fans. I could go on. But my point is that the NHL front office is busy making owners happy when it should be spending more time figuring out what fans want in their game. Ultimately, it’s the fan base, or lack thereof, that will determine the mid-long term success of the NHL. Quick fixes will stop working at some point. But just like with politicians, Bettman does what in his best interest to remain sitting in the cushy leather chair in New York. Do you ever question why he is booed by NHL fans whenever he makes a public appearance at games?

Now on to what fans want in the game of hockey. In coming back from the strike, the NHL’s master plan was to increase scoring to attract fans. They implemented some good rules (e.g. make the two line pass legal) and some not so good rules (e.g. STRICT enforcement of obstruction calls). The latter rule/enforcement opened a huge can of worms with the hockey fan base. It has essentially alienated a major subsection of average/traditional fans. Simply put, you cannot sacrifice the emotion/intensity/physical play in the game for an increase in power plays/scoring. By calling games beyond tight, the new NHL is a showcase of games that lack any sort of flow. How can one enjoy a game that used to be tough (e.g. “hockey tough” “it’s okay, he’s a hockey player, he’ll be back” “give blood, play hockey”), but is now gentlemanly in nature? How can one idly sit by and watch players be escorted to the box time after time for infractions that have little or nothing to do with the play? How can one sit by and watch players embarrassingly dive or conveniently fall all over the ice because they felt a slight tug of the stick? And all for the sake of more scoring? Were there not other ways to increase scoring without sucking the flow, emotion, physical play out of the game?

After five years of not attending an NHL game, my brother and I brought my 55 year old father to the game on Saturday against the Panthers. After watching a period and a half of play, he demanded that we leave after the second period. He said that the game was broken, there was no flow to it, and it was lifeless. I also sat next an elderly couple in the 200 section. She asked about my sign and when I told her what it was about, she mentioned that the Caps used to have a huge fan base with loyal fans. She said she had not seen them in years and that they had been replaced “yuppies” that chat on cell phones rather than watching the game. She said that loyal fans outnumbered these new “fans” ten fold. While I don’t know about ten-fold, I concurred that the Caps had lost quite a bit of loyal fans.

Let me conclude that this is not a product/fault of the Caps; it is a fault of the NHL front office for turning the game of hockey into something that resembles the brand that is played in Europe. Gary Bettman should remember that 80% of his hockey teams reside in America and that Americans, and most Canadians, desire a sport that is intense and physical, the attributes that make other sports in this country attractive. The new NHL, complete with its new restrictions on penalties (and as a side product, intensity and emotion) does not deliver. The last rivalry in this sport was ten years ago for God’s sake. And while Gary searches for a new fan base, the fans that he should have targeted, those loyal fans that used to show up to games early because they could anticipate a great game, are beyond the exits to the arenas; they are beyond the expressway; they are at home and parked in front of their television and watching the NFL.

1 comment:

Guido from Pitt said...

Somebody said they wanted hats... well how about these?