NO END IN SIGHT

BAD FOR BUSINESS

Bloody acts of violence make it tough to promote the merits of a great game

CHARLIE GILLIS March 22 2004
NO END IN SIGHT

BAD FOR BUSINESS

Bloody acts of violence make it tough to promote the merits of a great game

CHARLIE GILLIS March 22 2004

BAD FOR BUSINESS

Bloody acts of violence make it tough to promote the merits of a great game

CHARLIE GILLIS

IT’S BEGUN to feel like a well-worn script: a player goes down in a pool of blood, prompting howls of protest from his hometown faithful and—in time—a tearful apology from his attacker. Then, after days of sage-like deliberation, NHL executives issue fines and suspensions, laying the matter nominally to rest, whether players and fans endorse the decision or not.

From an outsider’s perspective, the process must seem comically insular—a charade of justice that stands little chance of curbing the thuggishness it purports to punish. But if the league’s real agenda, as cynics suggest, is to fend off meaningful reform, the strategy has served them marvellously: fighting is up an estimated 25 per cent this season and, let’s face it, violence has always been the game’s unadvertised selling point.

Until now. With attendance declining in key southern markets, its U.S. television deal up for renewal, and a contract dispute with players threatening the 2004-5 season, Todd Bertuzzi’s suckerpunch on Steve Moore is shaping up as an acid test of the league’s fight-first, ask-questions-later philosophy—a heap of bad publicity when the league can least afford it. How, for example, can you claim to be “growing the game” (to crib a favourite phrase of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) when the face you present to potential new fans is that of a brutal sideshow? And what Big-Four TV network wants to be known for airing a sport in which the participants just might be maimed? “A few days ago,” says Joel Cohen, a Canadian who works as a marketing consultant for hockey teams in the U.S., “I was watching the game between Ottawa and Philadelphia with my 10-year-old, when everyone on the ice was fighting. I mean, how do you explain something like that to your kids?”

The challenge before the league couldn’t have been more stark than it was last week, when nauseating images of Moore—a Harvardeducated rookie with the Colorado Avalanche-buckling to the ice hit the U.S. media. While blockbuster trades were buried deep in daily sports sections, Moore’s broken neck was plastered across the front page of papers like USA Today. Highlight shows endlessly looped footage of the attack, damning a game many Americans already view as outlandishly brutal. The day after the incident, ESPN, the country’s leading sports TV network, devoted a full 10 minutes of its nightly newscast to debating whether Bertuzzi should face criminal charges (the consensus seemed to be yes), but not a single second to the type of on-ice action—pretty goals, fantastic saves—the NHL has been trying to market as “family entertainment.”

As such, the case is one more blow to U.S. expansion plans that the NHL once touted as its great leap forward. This season, average attendance at Carolina Hurricanes home games has plunged to just above 12,000, in an arena that holds 18,730. In Nashville, where the team is in playoff contention, only 12,660 show up per game, while the hapless Pittsburgh Penguins draw just 11,800 after 36 years in the league. Then there’s the NHL’s dismal performance on American television: five years after signing a US$600-million deal with ABC and ESPN, the league has seen a 21per-cent ratings drop, and is now routinely drawing fewer viewers than arena football. That means the broadcasters will likely seek a significant discount to sign on again, and Bertuzzi’s attack provides them with just the kind of ammunition they’ll need.

U It’s a calculation that presumes new fans will come to the game despite their memories of Steve Moore lying prostrate on the ice

Campbell (above) faced tough questions when he announced Bertuzzi’s suspension

WHICH MAY explain why Colin Campbell was so defensive last week when he met reporters to spell out the details of Bertuzzi’s comparatively long suspension. The league’s director of hockey operations was about 15 minutes into his announcement when he snarled at a reporter who suggested it was time for the league to consider a fighting ban. He was equally curt when another dared ask whether the suspension might be a business decision aimed at reassuring queasy fans in the NHL’s emerging markets. “It’s a hockey decision, not a business decision,” he snapped. “I don’t know what you mean by a business decision.”

His peevishness was obviously not the carefully controlled note the league had hoped to strike. So Bill Daly, the NHL’s smooth-spoken chief legal officer, later clarified that the suspension was indeed intended “to send a strong message” to fans that Bertuzzi’s attack in no way represents the true nature of pro hockey. Commissioner Bettman repeated the message, describing Bertuzzi’s punishment as “stern, harsh and quick” and insisting that such violence “is not a part of our game.” Yet significantly, no one contradicted Campbell’s core message, namely, that fighting is a part of hockey and there are no plans to change that. Or his denial of any connection between the game’s tolerance of fighting and attacks like Bertuzzi’s on unsuspecting players, which occurred after the Canuck threatened Moore through the media. “This,” said Campbell, “was not a fight.”

It’s a calculation of sorts that presumes new fans will come to the game despite their memories of Steve Moore lying prostrate under a pile of wrestling skaters. It also supposes that hardcore Canadian and American supporters might lose interest were fighting eradicated—a notion disputed by Bruce Hood, a former NHL referee who is now an outspoken advocate for cleaner hockey. “They could make a much better spectacle by simply allowing good playmakers to perform,” he says. “What better excitement is there than good passes, players flying down the ice and shots on net and goals?”

Hood points to college hockey and pro basketball as sports that draw large U.S. crowds without resorting to violence. “They do things to please the people,” he says. “They make it an entertaining sport.” By contrast, hockey has been held back by a “cliquey” group of executives and owners who refuse to change the rules for the betterment of the game, he says.

Cohen, who edits a hockey marketing newsletter that reaches 70 per cent of North America’s pro and amateur teams, isn’t optimistic about hockey’s prospects for growth. But he, too, believes the Bertuzzi incident has presented the league with a perfect chance to abolish fighting, and make itself more palatable to the family audience it has spent the past decade wooing. Another challenge, he says, will be stamping out the image of a roundhouse punch to the head of an unsuspecting player, which for years to come will define the ugly side of the game. “What’s done is done,” says Cohen, “and you can’t erase that image.”

Assuming, it might be added, that you really want to.