Not that any league has quite figured out how to effectively leverage their biggest talent outside of the nation title spotlight, but it seems like every year the NHL finds a new-and-improved way to confuse and completely annoy an overwhelming large population of its fans.
Part of the problem with the All-Star game is it lacks definition. The league has no idea what exactly the game is there to do for the fans. Seriously, think about it… why does the NHL have an All-Star Weekend? It isn’t to show off the best-of-the-best of the players because too many of them don’t make the cut… It isn’t to placate the fans, because too many of them complain from the beginning of the selection process straight through the first game after the break, and it isn’t exactly the most watched spectacle of the year… It isn’t for the players, they’ve only one goal and that’s a cup, none of them would put that on the line for a no-show game… It isn’t for the league because they still can’t figure out how to leverage marketing dollars from it or increase the sport’s national appeal (or network adoption, hence another less-than-all-star broadcast on Vs.)…
Without a defined motivation how do you produce a quantifiable game?
Well, you can’t, and thus, even with such a huge ploy at the Hab’s 100-year anniv. there’s still too many storylines to be too easily overlooked on the national stage. It is almost sad to think that spring training games in baseball and time trials for NASCAR might be higher rated some years, ne’re mind, the climax of the mid-season ritual is quickly becoming the Winter Classic instead of All-Star weekend.
This weekend’s event began as a sham because the league (henceforth renamed National “hokey” League) once again showed its ineptness in managing itself. The idea of having the fans interact with the sport and cast votes for the players they want to see is a great engagement device. However, the league’s execution of the process was saddening. The players selected clearly were out of it being a popularity contest, which, is no surprise because that’s the way it is in every sport. However, when the tallies are so lop-sided it is hard to believe the ballot-box was not stuffed. In an age where nearly everything is trackable, why didn’t the league engage in some rule making to discourage such actions and enact some restrictions to the process? It is not that expensive to limit the number of votes that come via a particular IP address for online voting or originate from a particular phone number for SMS. Every other new media voting tally engages in this kind of build, but the NHL seems more interested in raw numbers than defined metrics. But, the more important thing is not how they build the system but how they market it. Considering how insignificant it is to be a “starter” as compared to how you perform in a game, the fact that the league put so much focus on the first 45 second shift as chosen by a few fans and so little on the skills of all the players selected overall, it really devalues the players themselves. You know when the biggest controversy is the leagues two consistently best players (EAST Alex Ovechkin and WEST Jarome Iginla) were not selected and had to be added later and were hardly a part of the overall marketing to the league compared to the controversy of who wasn’t a starter.
So, how do you fix the game?
How about get rid of it?
It is not like the ASG is a huge part of any part of hockey and its glorious history to begin with. Make the waste of time, effort and marketing dollars disappear and invest it in something that the league can make unique and definable.
Expand the Winter Classic! Duh. It already IS the premier event of the year next to the Stanley Cup… use it to your advantage NHL!
The league spent how much money on a portable ice rink? To what, use it once a year?
Get rid of the stupid farce of no Defense, embarrassed goalies and players not interested in possibly hurting themselves and go what already works. Make it three weekends of big games outdoors and really use what makes hockey, hockey.
The first weekend is the New Years game, the tried and true weekend Winter Classic success. The league selects two teams and places these arch rivals against one another in a classic winter setting. Rekindling the original six rivalries and reinforcing some of the new rivalries and exploit those teams that have great hating fans. The Detroit v. Chicago game was only one of many potential outbursts that can be exploited when you think about the depth of marketing that could occur. It could be classics, like the long dormant Detroit v. Leafs original six replay or a re-enactment of the Rangers v. Canucks Stanley Cup (maybe on the anniv year of the event) or a great regional rivalry such as the Caps v. Penns (not just for the current Ove v. Crosbaby, but the 25 year rivalry that people forgot about between the two teams). There are so many potentially classic combinations it could go on forever matching them up. There are more than enough teams that make ice naturally this time of year above the Mason-Dixon line and some great rivalries that still could be tapped for years on end.
The second weekend is a non- market weekend. This is playing in a non-NHL franchise market outdoors with two non-market teams. It can help showcase teams from non-ice markets in places that normally do not normally have professional matchups. It could help test the viability of expansion markets and really define the national draw of teams that have had difficult financial situations while pairing them with more national exposure. Suppose a battle of the Bolts v. Cats in Quebec, Cyotes v. Stars in Seattle, Kings v. Ducks in Juneau, Nashville v. Columbus in Hamilton… games in Portland, Winnipeg, maybe back in Kansas City (yet again?!) and provide the league with some serious market and franchise research that they don’t have in any other justifiable way. This would be huge for both building up non-existing markets and maybe helping bolster suffering markets in their profile.
Finally, the third weekend is the culmination of the event held on the traditional ASG weekend. Make it the previous year’s President’s Trophy winner versus the fan’s selected favorite franchise. The fan selection would occur during the previous season with a couple of obvious notes: the President’s trophy winner and the Stanley Cup winner would not be the fan selected team… and the schedules would be set so that the other selections would not be included… so the 26 remaining franchises would be a potential go on any given year. The fan selections would be placed during a select time frame where fans could vote at games, log in to vote, SMS vote or use another venue (such as MySpace or Twitter) to log a vote, however, every voter has to provide some unique identifier that also acts as a marketing element (phone number that auto opts into SMS marketing messages, email that auto opts into email news letters or other info that allows for marketing). This provides the league with opt-in marketing they do not have right now and can leverage to build the league status and help parse the ballot-box stuffing that obviously occurs for players. On the off chance that the two teams were southern teams and unable to do a full-on outdoor game it would present the league with a unique opportunity to demonstrate a game indoors in a huge venue that they can completely obliterate the ratings on. Otherwise, like every other outdoor game it is the league decision based on the arbitrary set of rules they are always set on.
The question of how to define the teams at this point becomes a big question, but then again, no one has really set forth Winter Classic rules as of yet… lets set some arbitrary guidelines for now: No team plays more than three consecutive years, only the president’s trophy winner can play the same game back-to-back – otherwise teams should not be selected for games in back-to-back years, etc. The league would consider the circumstances and not announce the other two games until the voting was done for the potential fan faves as to give the fans the most potential, and the announcement of all the other teams would not happen until after the Stanley Cup winner was announced so the league can align teams for the next year as part of the regular scheduling.
So, how does one ensure that these games would mean something as opposed to what the ASG doesn’t mean now?
Well, first, these games would be regular season games. Players would have no other choice but to care, and fans would have no other choice but to root for it, the league would have no other choice but market it and the press due to what the games would be would have no choice but to cover them. Yeah, the argument would be that only the teams selected care and the cities that are a part of the games would care, but then again, that’s really potentially the same number of fans, the Winter Classic or any singular round of the playoffs and those are great number to build on as opposed to the horrid ASG numbers that exist.
Second, no other league anywhere defines their best based on these terms, this isn’t about the traditional version of the best, this is about what makes the NHL this best… this is about the best of the best outdoors, this is what the NFL is afraid of, outside games in hard weather, which is why there hasn’t been a superbowl outside in decades, the NBA never plays outside anything even in nice weather and baseball is, well, baseball… This is about proving what everyone knows, hockey players are the toughest guys in the world, three chances resulting in a huge part of the league proving they can survive the elements. This is the league proving they are the most brutal, staging three huge outdoor games a year and being successful, as opposed to the other three leagues farce of games that make up their best of players games. Plus this puts the “best” team from the previous season versus the leagues “favorite” team, a match up that “never” happens in any playoff scenario in any league under any circumstance. If that isn’t a great lineup, nothing is.
Third… it would truly showcase the best talent of the league, maybe not head-to-head in that lame “dream team” sort of way the way most all-star teams are built, but then again any idea of “best” mid-season is speculation anyway, and the playoffs already are developed to showcase 16 of the best teams anyhow, this just showcases another 8 versions in another venue that the league and the teams and some special cities can capitalize on. It also presents the best players in another version of the best that isn’t already showcased.
Finally, build something unique into each weekend other than just the game itself.
Perhaps, make the New Years weekend game all about the public. Include a huge open skate for the fans to just enjoy the ice. Do a fan skills competition as part of the event. Raffle off a learn from the pros portion of the event. Work every public relations angle possible with the host city to really embrace the fans and engage them with involvement. Put people on the ice and let them experience first-hand how incredible the experience really is and fully give back to the community at large with the affair.
The second weekend could showcase hockey as a whole to a new city. Schedule a day worth of pee-wee, youth league and high school hockey at the rink and bring the local community into the game. If there is local college hockey, invite that rivalry into the event. Tie in the two AHL affiliates to the NHL teams playing and have them play as part of the weekend’s events or host some other minor league rivalry. Really put the depth and breath of hockey on the map for fans in the host city.
The final weekend could showcase the “all stars” with the skills competition that already invigorates fans. As hokey as some of the skills are, they are appreciated and should continue to have a home in the sport. Everyone loves a great power slap shot of course, and the accuracy, speed skating and other competitions are always worth it for the highlight reel. Add a few more in for that matter and really impress with skills, do a checking competition, where guys have to slam into a force gauge and the hardest body check wins, or a slalom to show how well guys can actually move on the ice. Anything to put all the skills on display. In addition, announce the hockey Hall of Fame inductees that weekend and bring in the tradition of the sport and force people to take notice.
It certainly would be different and for hockey, which is already a “different” sport anyhow… Why continue to force more of the same old ‘major leage’ stuff at fans when it can continue to blaze a unique trail toward its own definition?