Thursday, August 18, 2005

Sucker Punched

The reinstatement of Todd Bertuzzi had me thinking on the role the League and the media play in how hockey is marketed. With the ink on the CBA still fresh, rule changes, and new strategic partnerships the League is charged with the ambitious task making the game profitable. It might not be next year but here's why they're on the right track.

As most know, the NHL does not make a lot of money. In 2002-03, the NHL reportedly spent more on costs than it got back in revenue (net loss of about $300mln). So, we’re not dealing with a highly profitable, widely coveted, or particularly well-run asset. The lockout and subsequent CBA gives the NHL an opportunity to become more profitable through controls on spending and a (re)emphasis on the concepts that Madison Avenue feels will sell the best. Every decision from this point needs to be viewed through this lens.

Given that, it is easy to frame the decision to reinstate Bertuzzi in large measure as a financial one. Even the way the story was released showed flashes of marketing savvy. The classic “shout and whisper” technique: the Gretzky’s coaching announcement had the effect of diminishing the criticism of the Bertuzzi news later that same day. The NHL needs things to go VERY right in the next couple of years and it needs to be known for more than gratuitous violence. A goal-friendly format was introduced for just that reason. In this way the Bertuzzi reinstatement mirrors the League's own reinvention. Above all, this translates into ticket sales and I imagine even those who find Bertuzzi’s actions deplorable will buy tickets to boo him in rinks around the country.

Hockey is a brutal game. Yet, that is principally what the novice fan pays to see. It is a great game for all the reasons it’s not appreciated. Go to Columbus and show me a hockey fan and I’ll show you a Jody Shelley fan. Which is why the Bertuzzi outrage was such bunk. To celebrate the game for its violent streak yet also condemn it when someone crosses some artificially determined moral line strikes me as ridiculous. Fans want to see players toe a violent edge but not cross it. When they do, everyone scapegoats them. The NHL has two options: either decrease your tolerance for acceptable levels of gratuitous violence through rule change or leave it the same, discipline the offenders, accept the public image black eye, and move on. But it is disingenious for the League and, to a lesser extent, the media to refuse to move the line in order to sell the game while also coming down so hard on Bertuzzi.

The media coverage after Bertuzzi’s attack was predictable. What prevents the game from gaining any momentum, was the media coverage before the attack. Back when Steve Moore dummied Markus Naslund, questions abounded as to why no Canuck “stood up” and fed Moore his lunch immediately. When it comes to hockey, the media looks no deeper than the box score, the fight, or the great sound bite because they don't have to and at the end of the day I am too stupid to tell the difference. The adage should read “It may lead, but only if it bleeds”. This is the price the League felt it needed to pay to sell seats. How is that strategy at all enlightening for the fan?

The League needs success stories in order to flourish. The first of these is the OLN deal because it shifts the media paradigm. The League will no longer have to compete for shelf space and can now begin to challenge the assumptions, concepts, and values for which it has come to be known.


JP said...

I don't think Todd Bertuzzi crossed some "artificially determined moral line." He crossed a statutorily determined criminal line. Big difference.

Steve Moore dropped the gloves six minutes into the game and got his ass kicked. That should have been the end of it.

The premeditation of Bertuzzi's attack - coupled with its total lack of neccessity - makes the act deplorable on every level. This was not just barely over the line.

Spe said...

Do you think there would have been a suspension and criminal charges had there been no injury? Of course not. The League punishes one player based on the injury of the other, not the act itself. An extra 2 min for drawing blood, for instance. It's the act and the behavior surrounding the act that the League has condoned in order to draw. They can't have it both ways. If Bertuzzi's guilty of anything it's poor judgement and bad luck.

JP said...

And criminal assault. The League condones hard, clean hitting and the occassional fight. Without fighting - "settling differences like men" - there would be nothing but cowardly stick work and sucker punches in the League when players felt wronged.

But what Bert did was "outside the code" and wasn't even close to what the League condones. It's a different story if it's not premeditated. It's a different story if Bert hits him once instead of jumping on Moore and soaking his head with haymakers when the guy was already out.

If Moore was fine, Bert would still have been suspended (though criminal charges would have been unlikely). There is no place for that garbage in the NHL, and the League does nothing to encourage or allow it.