By Stu Hackel
This would have been the first weekend of the NBA's regular season which, as everyone knows, is in limbo and threatened by the owners' lockout. Inevitably, the question arises, what does it mean for the NHL? Does the absence of pro basketball realistically present an opportunity for the NHL to capitalize on the situation?
For most hockey fans on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, the reasons for the NBA's popularity are a mystery. They believe, with good reason, that the NHL offers superior entertainment -- greater speed, more physicality, greater unpredictability and unsurpassed athleticism -- and have trouble comprehending just what it is about the NBA that its fans find so compelling. If hoops fans would give hockey a try, the thinking goes, they'd recognize they've been missing a better product and the NHL would cease lagging behind the other major sports in the U.S.
In fact, Toronto Star columnist Raju Mudhar profiled two such NBA fans last month. Brett Duquette and Bob Gurnett "have plunged headfirst into a whirlwind love affair with all things NHL," became Jets fans (a good choice), and even joined the hockey blogosphere with What The Hell Is Icing?, enlisting two other guys to also post hockey stories. (Well, the two other guys seem to be doing the majority of the posts.) What hooked them on hockey? Mudhar says it was a fight.
Then there's Bill Simmons, Editor in Chief of the online sports mag Grantland and author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. He bought L.A. Kings tickets because of the NBA lockout and wants to learn more about the NHL. "I realized something during last night's Kings-Blues game," he wrote a couple of weeks ago: "I have never not enjoyed myself at an NHL game. I mean, what's not to love? It's a sport with the best in-game format (long period, long break, long period, long break, long period, go home), best regular-season in-game wrinkle (the shootout), best secretly awesome moment (any fight), highest percentage of 'most likable players' (hands down), and highest percentage of 'true fans in attendance' of the four major sports (indisputable). They fixed many of the sport's problems, made it better, and now we're here."
So does the lockout provide that chance?
Well, yeah....sorta. But really, most likely, no.
When you read the rest of Simmons' piece, you find it's not really a rhapsody about hockey. It's mostly about his anger at the NBA owners and reads as if going to hockey games is his revenge, sorta like when you date a new girl just to get back at your old one. That would be OK, if he actually liked the new girl. But, he pledged there'd be a new regular Grantland hockey column, "Behind the Pipes," and it hasn't emerged yet. Instead, it looks like he's really still hung up on his old girlfriend.
And while Duquette and Gurnett genuinely sound like they could be getting into the NHL and its culture more than just sampling it, Mudhar provides a moment of realistic balance when he writes, "Admittedly, the movement of the NBA fan to NHL devotee sounds like a stretch to some, as while there are definitely plenty of all-sports fans, these two sports tend to have less overlap."
Mudhar goes on to say that, "In the U.S. the narrative of hockey as basketball substitute is starting to gain some momentum," but the only evidence he offered was Simmons' story and Stephen Colbert creating a sarcastic pro-NBA-owner commercial on the Colbert Report that "warned of NBA fans being forced to watch hockey.” (Actually the mock spot said the owners wanted to save their fans from watching hockey, as you can see here; but why quibble?) That's not really momentum.
Hockey fans really want this to be a teachable moment for the non-hockey world, especially in those cities where there is an NHL and an NBA team. In Canada (whose sports radio stations are daily streamed to me via computer), there's hope that some sort of substantial conversion is going to take place down here and the game to which The Great Dominion gave birth will finally start gaining the mass acceptance that has been forecast since the first modern NHL expansion in 1967. They want to know what plans the league is making to capture alienated NBA fans, certain that those fans will, if not change allegiances, then at least begin to see the light.
They could be in for a little disappointment.
I believe that some NBA fans who had a casual acquaintance with hockey might get more interested, especially if a team in their market is playing well. Everyone gets excited over a contender. And some will stumble upon the game and stick around. But I have trouble believing there will be a significant migration to the NHL from the NBA during the lockout. It would be great, of course, but it would defy long-ingrained habits that, despite what a disaffected sports editor or a couple of converted fans do, aren't so easily broken.
These two sports run simultaneously during the year and chances are, if you follow one -- with the number of games you can see on TV and the multitude of print and internet options offering information and insight -- you don't have the time or inclination to follow the other. I'm with my SI.com colleague Adrian Dater on this one. Dater wrote for his Denver Post gig, "NBA and NHL fans have become more and more like Republicans and Democrats. They just like their own side, and that's it."
Whether you buy that or not, consider this: There are lots of alternatives for NBA fans that would be less of a leap than becoming hockey newbies. First, there's college basketball, which coincidentally starts this weekend. It is the same game, more or less. It's where many of the future NBA stars will come from, so NBA fans are probably watching it anyway. After all, it's shown all over TV and there are, it seems, hundreds of schools and conferences and tournaments and players to absorb the NBA fan before he decides to turn the channel in search of an NHL game.
And it wouldn't be surprising to see pro basketball from Europe get more exposure here if the NBA season vanishes.
Because of their lack of familiarity with the NHL, I would suspect most NBA fans would probably prefer to watch almost anything on TV other than hockey. Ontario native Kyle Andrew Busch, who blogs at The Checking Line, notes, "American fans won't watch hockey just because basketball isn't on. If they have ESPN for seeing NBA games, then they'll eat up whatever ESPN throws at them first, whether it be boxing, wrestling, NASCAR, poker, darts, college sports or a rodeo." That's probably true.
The more willful among us will implore the NHL to get to work pronto to change this, to step up its efforts and rope in the orphaned fans of the NBA. Well, it's not as if the league hasn't been marketing itself all along, and in conjunction with its partners at NBC, coming up with new ideas to expose the game, like the Thanksgiving Showdown matinee game between the Bruins and Red Wings that will air on the big network Nov. 25.
Now, NBC has done excellent work trying to grow the NHL on Versus (soon to be NBC Sports Net). Although, they haven't officially announced it, indications are their ratings are up. But it would be shortsighted for the league and NBC to devote massive energy and resources to wooing the NBA's refugees. What happens if they settle the lockout? All that time and money down the drain.
That was pretty much Gary Bettman's message on Chris Russo's satellite radio show earlier this week. "Work stoppages aren't good for any of us," Bettman said. "And I get asked a lot about how we're 'taking advantage of an opportunity.' The truth is, you can't make an elaborate plan when you never know how long a work stoppage is going to last."
I suspect Mr. Bettman would rush into any legitimate opportunity to expand his game's fan base. But he doesn't make those sorts of moves unless he's certain there will be a payoff. If you've listened carefully to him over the years, you know he's a research driven-animal and it's quite likely this whole area has been pored over by various number geeks and opinion wonks and they've concluded what we already know: There's not much crossover between the NBA and NHL fans and the chances of this lockout changing that is rather slim.
I think of my own experience here. During the 1994 NHL lockout, I didn't increase my NBA watching at all. I actually started watching English Premier League soccer, which began airing frequently on the local regional sports channels, probably filling in for the missing hockey programming. But I wasn't new to that sport; I had played some as a teenager. It was a lot more like hockey than basketball.
The smartest hockey people I know always speak about managing expectations. That's good advice for those who assume, believe or even just hope the NBA lockout will somehow significantly boost the NHL's standing in the U.S. sports landscape. Without a doubt, it opens the door for some to walk into the arenas where we hockey folks feel the spectacle is unmatched in sports. Just how many will take that walk is questionable, however, and -- while I'd like to be wrong on this -- to expect that hockey will start substantially trending with the hoops crowd now is little more than a dream.
They're calling themselves the Original 7even and that's their new song. But they're really Morris Day and the Time!
There's a great live version -- even better than in one in Purple Rain -- that I can't embed. Here's the link. Morris, he's cool. Just ask him.