David M Singer
Dec 20, 2002
When you think of the most unique major sport, hockey probably comes to mind. The ice, the puck, few things in hockey can be seen in other sports. That is why it is odd that the NHL should look at MLB and follow their lead. Obviously, not referring to ridiculous salaries here, but baseball made a change that hockey should follow: unbalanced schedules. More passion, more attention and better economics, what’s not to love?
The concept is a simple one: more divisional games. More Islanders-Rangers, Leafs-Habs, Wings-Hawks and Flames-Oilers. The list goes on. These games are the most watched, the most cared about, and from an owner and league perspective, bring in the most revenue. Revenue that is needed to drive the league. Why has the league cut back on these games? One word - Expansion. Expansion and some ridiculous need for every team to see each other once or twice a season. When is the last time you heard someone mention they are dying to see the Hurricanes play the Canucks? Probably not recently. Replace ‘Nucks with Panthers, or swap the ‘Canes with the Oilers or Avalanche, and now we’re talking.
Little do I need to expand on the examples I have already given. Local rivalries rule the fans’ hearts. It does not matter what place a team is in the standings when a rival comes to town. Everyone is energized for it, and rarely does that energy not extend down to ice-level. Cross-country interconference games are 2 points just the same, but what ticket are you trying to get in advance? Which match-ups are the die-hard fans running out of work for just to make sure they do not miss the first few minutes at a local tavern with their friends? It is the game with bragging rights, the one you always can fall back on in debate. While we used to witness 7 divisional games a season, we are now down to 5.
Big games have big hype. Big hype means media coverage. It would be foolish to think the NHL doesn’t need more. Few local news broadcasts start their sports segment off with hockey unless there is a big game about to be played, or one that was just completed. People talk about these games, and hockey needs that. Ratings points are always in demand and the ability to market these games rises with each roar of the crowd, a crowd larger and louder for a rival.
Ignore the passion and the attention if you want, but the dollar signs are hard to shrug off. Gate revenue should be an easy assumption to make. Although some teams regularly sell out, most do not. Full crowds come to see division rivals. More tickets sold, more money. Better television contracts could conceivably come about. A ratings increase would be gladly welcomed in a time where all sports seem to be slipping. Just a small step up should see an improvement and although it is not guaranteed it is very possible.
One way to “make” money is sometimes by not spending it in the first place. More divisional games equal less travel. Same number of home and away games, of course, but there has to be a difference between traveling to the same state/province and traveling across country. Fewer hours on a plane should help the players some too.
Might as well throw out some numbers:
Here’s where we make the big change. 7 games versus 4 opponents. 2 more games per season per divisional rival are huge. 8 more games to look forward to, 4 more games for the home team to cash in on. 28 games.
2 other divisions, 5 teams per divisions. Keeping the number of games per team to 4 (the way it is now), is just about right. 40 games, bringing the total to 68.
Instead of spreading the grouping thin with the remaining games, pick one division a year, play 2 games against a team (one home, one away), and rotate each year (similar to what the NFL currently does). Annual season ticket holders still see every team over the course of a few years. 5 teams, 2 games a piece: 10 games, our total is now 78.
Two choices. One is shortening the season to 78 games. Many have been calling for a way to start the playoffs earlier to somehow get the Cup over by June and deleting 4 games from the schedule is an easy way to do so. Yes, the schedule was once 84, but it was also once 80. The NHL seems to have little problem changing the number of games per season, so lopping off 4 may not be so bad.
The other concept is just adding 4 games of choice. Selected teams no matter where they’re located. This can guarantee some Original Six matches and provide a boost to a non-expected rivalry. For example, last season's Stanley Cup Finals teams etc... Random selection or even selection by requests may be an idea. It may be difficult to make every team happy with this solution, but it is sure to work for most.
Whatever number of games the total comes to, the amount of interest the NHL can generate can definitely rise. This would make the game more exciting to the fans, while adding a smile to some owners' faces. A win-win situation if there ever was one. The league is in a position to make such a decision, let's hope it chooses to do so.
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