Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Charm of the Great Outdoors

In 2003, the NHL took things outdoors to celebrate two of their most successful franchises, the Montréal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. The game wasn't particularly promoted, the jerseys used in the game weren't sold in stores but it wasn't a secret. Images of Wayne Gretzky and Jose Theodore red in the face and frostbitten at Commonwealth Stadium in front of 57'000 adoring fans are written into hockey history.

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Similarly, images of Sidney Crosby scoring the shootout winner on Ryan Miller at Ralph Wilson Stadium or the Leafs and Red Wings playing at The Big House in front of 100k fans wearing red and blue in a snow storm have that calming effect of outdoor hockey. That being said, the other Winter Classics, Heritage Classics and Stadium Series, don't quite have that same effect. Not to say they're not successful, but as the years go on it seems outdoor games get lost to time, particularly the Stadium Series. Should the NHL scale back its outdoor games?

First let's think of what an outdoor game needs to be successful. Since this is one game there needs to be a game where there's a rivalry. Pinning LA and San Jose against each other is a good example of this. The two teams have plenty of history together, particularly in the playoffs, and being in the same division means the game will have at least some meaning. There are times this isn't the case. The 2016 Stadium Series game in Colorado, while not a failure, was better known for its alumni game that featured players from a time when a Colorado v. Detroit series was the best hockey out there, not an 8th seed playoff team and a bottom 10 rebuilding team. Sometimes things are out of the team's hands. The 2016 Winter Classic pinned Boston and Montréal together, one of hockey's greatest rivalries in an original 6 divisional match up with more playoff history than any two teams wasn't as successful as it could have been. Why was this? Montréal had lost Carey Price to injury for the season and was in turmoil on the way to a forgettable season.

Second the location needs to be iconic. Putting a game in any old outdoor stadium won't do, there needs to be some sort of provenance to where the game is being held. Breaking in a relatively and hyped up stadium like what Winnipeg did in the 2016 Heritage Classic or the Canucks did in the 2014 Heritage Classic at BC Place are examples of this. Places like the Big House, Heinz Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field or Levi's Stadium host iconic teams regularly and are sites of sports history; thus they themselves act as advertisement for the game. Putting the game at the closest football/baseball stadium isn't really good enough unless the rivalry can carry the weight.

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How many outdoor games should there be in a year? In 2003-04, there was one, from 2008-2013 there was one aside from in 2010/11 when Calgary hosted Montréal in only the second ever Heritage Classic. In 2013/14 there was a Winter Classic (Detroit), Heritage Classic (Vancouver) and 4 Stadium Series games in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. That's 6 outdoor games. Two of these games contained all non-playoff teams (New York Islanders V. New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators V. Vancouver Canucks). New Jersey refused to wear specialty jerseys for the game, citing the chrome logos as stupid and opting for their traditional inaugural jerseys. This was the turning point year for the outdoor game as a concept.

The 2015 Winter Classic in Washington was doomed to not be as good as the 2014 game, even though it objectively contained better teams. Chicago wore very similar jerseys to what they wore regularly on the road and there was a nearly 60k drop in attendance. The 2015 Stadium Series game two non playoff teams as the California teams suffered an off year outside of Anaheim that largely proved to be pointless, despite it being another outdoor game in California, something that was once unheard of until 2013/14

2015-16 brought on another disappointing game, though attendance was a little better at ~67K the lack of Price proved to be enough to deter tv viewers. On top of this the two Stadium Series games proved to be relative duds, with the Wild blowing out the Blackhawks in Minnesota and a meaningless game in Colorado; both games drew 50k fans and while the later game proved to be entertaining, there was little hype regarding either.

Finally in 2016-17, we've had 4 games outside. The Winter Classic could be considered the dud of the 4, bringing in lower tv ratings than the Boston Montréal game, ~46 fans at the game and proving to be largely forgettable. The Stadium Series game brought the two Keystone state teams together for the first time outside, and it brought out ~67k fans despite Philadelphia suffering through a mediocre season. The Centennial Classic in a rematch of the 2014 Winter Classic had only 40k fans at the game, but was played in at BMO field, which is maximum capacity. Furthermore it served as the launching point for the NHL's 100th anniversary and was an entertaining game and well watched at least here in Canada. The Heritage Classic had the same effect, though instead of launching the 100th anniversary, the game was a dream come true for Winnipeg hockey fans despite the game being a 3-0 shutout.

The 2018 Winter Classic is said to be played at Citi Field with the Rangers hosting the Sabres. A game that if played today would feature a top 5 team in the Eastern Conference versus a bottom 5, a 22 point difference between the two as of March 17th 2k17. Of course the Sabres are expected to be a playoff team in 2017-18 after years of mediocrity/rebuilding, but still, who is really asking for a game between these two? Both teams have played outdoors, the Rangers as recent as 2014. Citi Field is the home of the Mets, a team that goes from NL Champs to Wild Card losers and notorious for inconstancy. The field itself is known for replacing Shea Stadium where the Beatles played in 1965 to open their North American tour and more recently being in a dump. I can almost guarantee the response to this game outside of Rangers/Sabres fan bases and jersey collectors will be apathy.

Similar things can be said about the proposed 2nd outdoor game (likely the other Centennial Classic) between Ottawa and Montréal, though it will likely be very successful in Canada with little fanfare in America outside of the jersey community.

How can the NHL fix the outdoor game? Focus on the teams that are playing! At this point, almost every team has played at least one outdoor game (Vegas, Arizona, Columbus, Dallas, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay) and almost all of those teams outside Columbus are on the outside looking in of the playoffs. On top of that southern teams will likely have to play their outdoor games on the road, which means the NHL will have to chose a rival for them to play against that people will watch (i.e.: Dallas plays Buffalo, Carolina plays Toronto, Tampa Bay plays Calgary/Pittsburgh etc.) In short, we're past the time where we need to think about every team getting one game, and should more be focused on what games will people watch.

We can dream
You can stick any has been band in an intermission/intro concert, and put them in any number of baseball/football stadiums until NCAA stadiums have to be used, but the people won't watch the game on tv for that, stadium appeal only really works for fans in the area or willing/wanting to make the trip. If it's a Pittsburgh/Washington game, people will watch. If it's a Chicago/Detroit game, people will watch. If it's Islanders/Oilers game, people will watch. If it's Toronto/Montréal, people will really watch. Things could change, and when teams are successful and drawing crowds they should be rewarded with an outdoor game; Columbus/Minnesota are a good example of that. Baring factors like a star being injured or an unexpected crappy season (which will happen and those can be written up to bad luck), the NHL can nearly guarantee success every game if they follow this.

Oh and give Chicago a break, they've been outside in 2009, 14, 15, 16 and 17....they're running out of jerseys!

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Charlotte's Loss

Very rarely do we see a city lose their chance at an All Star game or special event game without there being a players strike or lock out. Detroit lost the 2013 Winter Classic due to the most recent NHL Lockout, Columbus lost the 2013 All Star Game for the same reason. Atlanta lost the 2005 NHL All Star game, and the Montréal Expos lost the entire 1994 World Series. However, aside from the Expos, all these teams got their games as soon as possible, with the 2014 Winter Classic being held in Detroit, the 2015 NHL All Star game being held in Columbus, and the 2008 All Star game being held in Atlanta. However this year, we saw a league take action against a political opponent, and pull the 2017 NBA All Star Game from Charlotte due to the controversial "Bathroom Bill".

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Of course this bill is highly controversial, and with good reason, not just on the part about baring transgender people from using bathrooms they identify with (such as being discriminated against in hiring practices) and this bill clearly needs to be highly and rationally debated. The governor of North Carolina who signed it, in recent months has done nothing but double down and hold strong to it. The NBA threatened to pull the game if the bill wasn't repealed, costing the state and city at least $100M in tourism dollars, and wasting the efforts of the design teams making the gorgeous logo and likely gorgeous jerseys that would have come. However, the question becomes, was this the right move? In my opinion, NO!!!

The Charlotte Hornets are not connected in anyway to the North Carolina government, they are a private organization, owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan, who recently donated $2 million to mend police & citizen relationships in communities across America. Jordan is not a supporter of this bill, and to my knowledge has said little about it. He's a stand up community leader and a PR dream for the NBA. If the Hornets owner had come out and supported the bill, I would be a little more supportive of the revoking of the ASG in the same way I was of Donald Sterling being banned from the NBA. However, that isn't the case.

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Charlotte hasn't hosted the game since the original Hornets did so in 1991. 25 years later the people of Charlotte finally get to enjoy the thrill of the Slam Dunk competition, 3 point competition and yes the glorified Globetrotters game. Sure it would have made a lot of money for the state that passed the bill, but at the same time, the Hornets have absolutely no real power in getting that bill repealed. Sure they could come out against it but with all the public backlash coming out against it from celebrities and politicians as well as the general public, it likely would have done little to help. The association is punishing a team for something the place their city happens to reside in and something they had no control over happened the league didn't like on a PR level, which doesn't seem right.

If Adam Silver really wanted to send the message that the NBA doesn't stand with this, why not say so by hosting the game and making a statement with it. Why not go into North Carolina and say "This is a discriminatory bill and doesn't reflect the values of the league and stands against it".  Instead the league will hastily move the game to another city and give Charlotte another chance in a couple years...which is funny because who's to say the bill will be gone by then. If anything, it sounds like the NBA is hoping this will blow over and they can run the game there without the public backlash that wasn't there to begin with. To my knowledge there weren't protests against the league holding the game there, more so this seems to be preventative move on the part of Adam Silver to keep those who would complain quiet. After the Donald Sterling incident (which was directly basketball and business related mind you), it would make sense Adam Silver would want to deal with controversy quickly before another media circus happens. The buzzfeed complain brigade would complain about it no matter what, and they are not in any way shape or form likely basketball fans..but again...buesines

This bill is discriminatory, and the vast majority of those in the minority that is the transgender community simply want to use the washroom they identify with, it's like The Kinks said "girls will be boys and boys will be girls" and those who are deserve to be treated like everyone else, with decency. Bad people will do bad things regardless of whether they've transitioned or not and last I checked being a peeping tom/tina is already illegal. That being said, this does not involve nor should involve the NBA. Some may say it is good the NBA is socially involved, but when it affects business in such a way, screw it. There are ways to show your distain for the bill with punishing the Hornets fans who have waited since 1991 to see an NBA ASG and lose money. It's a short sighted plan that will lose money and support for a improbable cheap PR gain in the present.

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Think about it, the NBA has played games in China, a country with a censor happy and oppressive regime.... no one boycotted that. Why? It was because by doing so the league doesn't automatically approve of government censorship of criticism, after all, this post and my previous post on the competitiveness in the NBA weren't pulled by the NBA-Statsi. They did it because one of the top players in the league at the time, Yao Ming, was a superstar in the Chinese market and it would make money. The same thing would happen in Charlotte: a young team owned by the best player in basketball history who recently regained their classic name after painful years being called the Bobcats. They were within a game of winning the Southeast division this year. It would have been a fantastic business move. Instead, the Hornets will have to wait until at least 2018 for their next shot at the weekend festivities, while another large market like Los Angeles gets a yet another ASG.

If the NBA wanted to move the game, it should have left it to a GM vote.