SportsProf

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

In Case You Were Wondering

About the NHL season, that is. Click here for the latest.

The latest isn't just about this season, but the next one as well.

And it isn't very promising.

It's hard to understand what the owners and players are really thinking, that somehow a two-year absence from the airwaves and arenas is actually good for the game. If you analogize NHL hockey to supermarkets and shelf space (and I'll let the economists who follow both subjects correct me on the topic), other products have and will continue to fill the vacuum that the absence of professional ice hockey has created. Because of this vacuum, the product behind the trademark is tarnished, as it no longer stands for a reliable, happy product (for another analogy, look at Major League Baseball after 1994, where attendance suffered because the strike canceled the World Series. Attendance was healthy for the 2004 season, but it took MLB about ten years to recover), but a clumsy, unreliable one.

The way I understand it, bread companies are well organized machines that make sure come hell or high water that their delivery trucks get to the supermarkets so that they can preserve their optimal shelf space. Miss out on a day, and then your precious bread could be at foot level if it gets any space at all. Which means, of course, that when you go to the supermarkets on a daily basis you see shelf space that is in very good order. Why? The market demands it, and the market efficiencies are such that if one brand doesn't make it, others fill the vacuum.

Can the same be said for a professional sport with a major problem? Okay, so different breads are much more similar than, say, basketball and ice hockey, which means, at a minimum, there will be some diehards who will wait forever to see the return of Jaromir Jagr from Siberia (literally) and Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier from their well-documented visit to Tatarstan (really -- both ESPN the Magazine and SI wrote articles about this visit, and, once again, ESPN the Magazine wrote the earlier article).

But what about the remainder of the fans? The corporations who buy tickets for entertainment (who are probably more interested in the event aspects of the games rather than the fact that they're ice hockey games), the fans who get disgruntled, and the fans who are not the diehards? Miss one year, they might be understanding, and they might even sympathize that the salary structure in the NHL is so out of whack that absent major reforms, barring a timeout from play the whole NHL could end up broke. Fine, but a two-year hiatus?

Good luck.

The owners could win the battle and lose the war. Sure, they might right the course of their beloved league, but how will elite players fare after a two-year layoff? How many will go back to their native Europe and remain? How many fans will be forgiving, especially when ticket prices are very expensive, the product is boring, there are too many teams and too many of those teams make the playoffs? It's not just the labor issue that's paramount, it's the quality-of-the-product issues as well. They could rectify the salary structure, but then they could lament that even under a new and more favorable collective bargaining agreement they are struggling because the post-lockout attendance figures cannot support even a reduced salary burden.

Relative to the rest of the world, there remains a golden goose out there, even for the owners and players, none of whom at this moment are worthy of it.

But as each days passes, the golden goose is slowly dying.

As is the National Hockey League.

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