The Bettman Game – Ice Hockey Is Not Restricted To Big Cities

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Sonny Keywood, Lawson Glasby, Gary Bettman, the NHL, the English League, The English National League, Don Garber, the MLS, Green Bay Packers, Newcastle Vipers, British Basketball, David Beckham, Percy Harold Nicklin, Wasps Rugby Club, House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (later the house of Windsor), the netball super league and rugby league.

A vast collection of names, sports and teams that are not easily entwined, unless you have someone like myself, who perhaps is a bit of a dreamer. Perhaps it’s as my work colleagues would say, I have a touch of ADHD.

I have long held a vision of how to grow sports and maybe I have some big ideas; these are ideas that some will say sound rubbish, but everything we know today came from an idea, so there really isn’t any harm getting them out.

Petitions

The first two names, Sonny Keywood and Lawson Glasby, are two names that inspired me to write this and two names we should get behind as they reflect what my ideas are, and these are two ideas we should support.

They are both young hockey players who have set up petitions to get ice rinks in their local areas. Lawson’s is still live and the petition can be found on the following link:

https://www.change.org/p/worksop-ice-rink#petition-letter

Meanwhile Sonny’s petition has been presented here:

http://present.brighton-hove.gov.uk/mgEPetitionDisplay.aspx?Id=90

Okay, let’s start by playing the Gary Bettman game. Yes, big bad Gary Bettman. Okay, so in this reality, we are going to add 10 new top flight teams to the Elite League in the United Kingdom. Don’t concern yourself with available rinks or arenas, just what 10 teams would you add; they can be existing, closed teams or brand new teams. Take a minute before reading on, the Gary Bettman game, it can be fun.

Now I’m guessing that we might have a few suggestions for Liverpool, Newcastle, maybe one or two in London, Birmingham, possibly Bristol. I know I did when I first played the game; let’s face it, they are good choices, big cities, probably with communities from countries where hockey is more popular. If you have a city of 500,000, you only need 1% of the city to turn up and you’d have 5000 people every game, simple, article finished. But it’s not really finished – several teams have struggled and I think we may be overlooking a huge potential area of growth.

This is where we can look at the NHL and the old school of MLS. Expansion in both is predicated in market and especially television audience, because who doesn’t want to see big city names, big cities open the door to lucrative tv contracts. Has it worked? Partly. Bettman would say so.

After playing the Gary Bettman game, I probably would have made similar moves to what he has made: revenue sharing and TV contracts. History, if not hardcore fans, will judge him a success. We can’t go comparing the NHL to expansion of hockey in the UK, they are two different games at different stages of development. A league we can compare to is the MLS. Soccer is a fringe sport looking to take some of the market share and more importantly, they are looking to achieve stability, something they have done. This in turn has led to more player development.

The MLS has also done the old “put teams in big markets”; if you build it they will come.

Pointless

I watch Pointless, a simple fun game on television; one question came up a few months back on professional sports teams in New York, in any of the major leagues. This isn’t pointless, but name some professional sports franchises in New York. Go.

So the pointless answers were The Buffalo Bills and Sabres, both in upstate New York; Albany and the Devils weren’t classed as a major sports team. I thought I had a pointless answer – the MLS, the New York Red Bulls, easy. No, they are in Harrison, New Jersey, not too far away, but would still be one of the small towns outside a city. Think Wakefield to Leeds.

So again, although a big city, the MLS have gone about it slightly different, with a strong local support from the surrounding area.

The MLS, it should be noted, have started to change the expansion game. Both the Portland Timbers and the funniest named team in US sports, Real Salt Lake City, are small market teams. They are not going to lead to the pot of gold in terms of TV revenue, but they are both averaging over 20,000 spectators per game and sit in the top 10 of attendances of the MLS. Newer expansions such as Orlando, Philadelphia and Minnesota had existing teams at lower levels with a fan base ready. That gives you a head start.

Thinking Outside The Box

What if growing hockey in the UK is not about the biggest cities, but going where the Sonny and Lawson’s of the world are? What if it’s small cities and small towns where ice hockey takes its much need new fan base, its much needed new influx of players and most importantly its much needed increase in rinks?

Several journalists, commentators and bloggers in the USA now believe expansion in MLS works best where there isn’t a successful NFL or NBA team. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, Seattle being one, but the point is smaller markets are getting teams and are being included in expansion discussion. I think Sacramento is the latest city being looked at.

The MLS is getting some pretty good support and growth in development leagues and youth football, with high concentrations of new players in the small market areas. Even if it’s a small market team, attendances look good on TV; I would personally love to see a few smaller market teams back in the NHL instead of Vegas and the eventual or should I say the possible relocation of Carolina, hopefully back to Hartford. I’m still hoping that Florida and Arizona turn into stable franchises though.

If Bettman was in charge of the MLS, lots of the franchises simply would not be in place, the markets would not be considered strong enough.

Let’s not totally kid ourselves though; as David Beckham’s Miami franchise shows, people will always chase a big market, but let’s open our mind open to the smaller markets.

British Alternatives

So looking at this from the perspective of Ice Hockey on this side of the pond, would a new team benefit British hockey most in a new Durham arena or in Newcastle? I think it would be Durham, it may not have the name of Newcastle or the alleged marketing opportunities, but it has a history and a genuine passion for the game.

Why at the top did I mention Rugby League, Netball Super League and British Basketball? Well they are the competition and are going through the same pains and joys as the Ice Hockey market. They are going to be exploring the same markets and going through the same ploys and in Rugby League’s case, embracing innovation and increasing the fan experience.

These are the sports hockey is battling and make no mistake we are battling with a handicap, we need ice. I see more public basketball and netball courts being put in place, rugby league has good attendances for a large regional game and have a good contract with Sky along with the Netball Super League. BT are looking into a game changing idea in Basketball, similar to cricket and the IPL; it’s all buzz at the moment, but it is creating a buzz. So where is our buzz?

Brainstorming

Now here is another question. Let’s take the finances out of this, because this article is purely aimed at opening up a topic. If you bring ideas to the table, you never know where it will end in the future. What would benefit our ice hockey more?

Should we aim to put teams in Wembley Arena, The Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham, The Echo Arena in Liverpool, The Manchester Arena, possibly the Excell in London or other various conference centres that cater for sport and could be adapted, all arenas without a full time ice plant and arenas with huge rental and overheads?

Or is it better to plan for the day where we can move away from looking at big arenas and looking at the Planet Ice structure and look at building more arenas that could be owned by teams. Again ignore the costs at the moment, this is only an idea. There are teams such as Swindon and Guildford that have small loyal support which are the ones who could grow. What if they owned arenas, had practice rinks such as Cardiff will have, this is where the sport could grow long term.

What if more people like Sonny and Lawson try and change the world with youthful exuberance, what if one day we see small towns without the resources get rinks, what if for example a Hastings, a Kendall, a Weston – some of the best sporting events I’ve attended are small town teams where the whole town get’s behind a team, its team.

I was once shouted down off a message board for suggesting ideas to improved ice hockey and was given the old statement, Manchester Storm and London Knights had big crowds because of the standard of hockey. We need to improve the standard of players and it will grow. Partly true, but it was also down to Sky and the marketing, it was done well; but alas both suffered from rental prices. I was shouted down, but I still dream and I still have ideas, there is no doubt this argument needs to happen, how can we grow the sport. We are lucky, we now live in the age of social media, we live in the age where young people can launch petitions and get them to councils. We have voices, why not get voices heard.

Grassroots

Personally I would look at the argument as you build through the draft; free agency is a plaster or temporary spurt. We need to improve the infrastructure and get more players and get more practice time to really put down roots. To me, the draft is investing in development and not on free agents to get success now, although both would be good.

Could we have a strong league and strong development in the future? Could a team from Worksop sit on top of the United Kingdom hockey tree? Stranger things have happened; Percy Nicklin led us to the Olympic Gold in 1936, the Royal Family played ice hockey on a frozen Buckingham Palace pond against the five Stanley brothers (that Stanley family), the Green Bay Packers sell out the 80,000 Capacity Lambeau in a town with a 104,000 people. And finally, Wasps.

I grew up near Wembley, I used to play football in a place called Vale Farm Sports Centre, we used to play on the weekend in our early teens. Just behind Vale Farm a Rugby club once played by the name of Wasps; if you told them that one day they would own a 32,000 stadium in Coventry via Loftus Road and High Wycombe? Well anything can happen.

I’ve signed my petition and you know what, I hope we see rinks and teams in Worksop and Brighton in the future, why not? They could one day be mainstays o British and Irish ice hockey.

Now do the Bettman test again and like me, you might just have a different answer. Let’s not ignore the small town and city markets; these could be the niche that this sport needs – let’s do it before the competition takes them.

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