Tom Benjamin’s NHL Weblog: The Unforeseen

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Tom Benjamin’s NHL Weblog: The Unforeseen:

Today, in the third season after the lockout that changed so many facets of the game, the NHL finds its popularity waning in three of its gold star American markets: Detroit, Dallas and Colorado…

…a disturbing trend has emerged from the myriad rule, schedule and economic changes foisted upon fans after a year without hockey. That is an erosion of three of the dominant American markets of the last decade, the collateral damage of a new economy that nobody saw coming in Dallas, Colorado and Detroit.

But it was foreseen and people did recognized the possibility of collateral damage in the three successful American markets. It was one of the dozens of possible scenarios discussed on this site during the labour dispute. Snafu – a regular contributor and Red Wing fan – considered this to be a likely result of the lockout and new CBA.

And if you ask me, it’s not even remotely proven that the CBA is the primary cause of it.

It needs to be remembered that attendance is cyclic anyway. All three of these teams are at the end of a cycle where they’ve been a dominant, successful team with marquee Hall of Fame caliber players. In Detroit, Yzerman’s gone, Hasek might as well be, Shanahan is in Detroit. In Colorado, no more Roy, no more Forsberg. In Dallas, many of the names the fans were used to are gone, and the big name, Modano, is fading rapidly to black (and was jerked around gracelessly by the team when they stripped him of the “C”).

Both Dallas and Colorado were handed shiny brand new teams already finished and competitive and winning — it was fairly easy for the fan base to buy into that, unlike a traditional expansion franchise like San Jose or Tampa or Atlanta. Those teams have never HAD down cycles where they’ve had to rebuild through youth and have a couple of down years as a result. We don’t know what the fans will do when the team is mediocre, but we’re going to find out. If you look at the history of almost every team in any sports league — that always means reduced fan interest and fewer tickets sold. That’s natural (except in Toronto, where there are simply too many fans clawing for too expensive tickets)

Also, let’s not forget that Detroit has been seriously jacking up prices over the years — and the local economy has hit a serious air pocket. They’ve finally found, the hard way, the point at which people say “love hockey, gotta pay the rent”. Dallas is in a similar situation, and let’s not forget a few years ago they moved into a new building and jacked up ticket prices in a major way when they did. When you’re challenging for a Cup every year, you can raise prices — but will the fans stay when you become merely decent?

All of this hand-wringing about these franchises ignores a lot of factors, some out of the team control (local economy), some within (arrogance towards the fans in Detroit, for instance), and the natural cycle. To blame this on the CBA is silly.

It also ignores the fact that in other cities, you’re seeing teams that were in serious down cycles show a resurgence. Look at Chicago (finally!), look at St. Louis.

Back before the current Red Wing owners bought the team, we should remember that Detroit struggled to win and struggled to sell tickets — while Chicago was a strong team with a full building. Then the Wings got a new owner who rebuilt the team and funded a better team and marketed it well, while Chicago stagnated, moved into a new building fans hated, had lousy teams and an owner that was arrogant towards its fans, and the fans ran away in droves. Now, the Wings are showing the signs of arrogance, and the new Wirtz in town seems to be a real breath of fresh air in Chicago, long needed.

It seems that Spector and Tom are arguing that a team that is good should ALWAYS be good, and the CBA should somehow be structured to support that. That would imply that the other teams in the league should always be weak; this is a variation of the “New York should always be in the playoffs to keep the networks happy” argument.

And that’s false. the CBA should be set up to allow good management to succeed in whatever market, and no CBA can prevent economic collapse in a team’s city, or save bad management from itself — unless you want to go back to a model where the rich teams could spend whatever they want to buy themselves out of mistakes, but that leads to leagues where half the league is really a minor league system for the “real” teams (ask the Kansas City Royals fans; both of them).

Spector and Tom are taking part of what is the natural life cycle of teams and blaming the CBA for what is three teams coming to the end of a nice, long run — and in the case of Detroit, shooting itself in the foot along the way with pricing in the face of a weak local economy. If the CBA is to blame for anything, it’s that it no longer allows a team like Detroit to simply buy a team, it has to now go out and build one again. At the same time, that CBA is allowing teams like Chicago and Philly and the Islanders and St. Louis and even places like Columbus and Atlanta to improve their teams and become competitive quickly.

To me, the CBA is a GOOD THING here; instead of certain teams being able to guarantee their dominance, all teams now have a chance — and that’s good, unless you want to believe in a league where six or eight teams are the “real” teams and the rest are cannon fodder. One could in fact make an argument that part of the reason this league hasn’t broken out of “regional sports” mode is because the old CBA made it hard for teams that weren’t already able to spend lots of money on teams to build teams to compete with the “powerhouses” — and now, they can, and teams like the Rangers and Red Wings aren’g going to be guaranteed playoff spots or high performing teams just because they can out-spend their peers.

Good teams in Atlanta and Columbus and St. Louis and Tampa will do wonders for growing this league, if the people who deep down inside want this league to contract and crawl back into it’s “traditional” markets of Canada and the Northeast don’t get in the way (again).

Funny thing is, Spector could have written this article five years ago about the death of the Blues, and ten years ago, his “powerhouse” Stars was actually a failing team in Minnesota and many were skeptical of the move to Dallas. And fifteen years ago, it would have been Chicago. But, of course, the real point here is to rip the CBA and Bettman, because that’s what we do. Well, they do.

As always.

Reality is — these up and downs are part of a natural cycle. Good teams stop being good, fan interest wanes. Bad owners struggle, good owners improve, and fan interest comes back. The only real difference in this CBA here is that there’s no longer a guarantee that a deep set of pockets can spend themselves out of bad management decisions, and that is something I find hard to see as a bad thing. Yes, you’re seeing weakness in some markets. But you’re also seeing growth and resurging attendance and interest in others. But mentioning that might weaken the argument, no?

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