Tuesday, February 18, 2014

USA vs. Russia Demonstrates Why NHL Players Should Play in Olympics

I wanted to wake up for the 7:30am start of US vs. Russia Saturday morning. Just in case I didn't, I set my DVR to record the game. I'm glad I did because I slept through most of it. And when I woke up, Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with patriotism and the word "Oshie." There were 530,000+ tweets with the word "Oshie" in them on Saturday.

When was the last time that such a thing has ever happened for hockey? When was the last time that the entire country focused on a hockey game, the way a city focuses on a Stanley Cup game? The game was even featured on SportsCenter, on NBA All-Star weekend, and we know how rare it is for SportsCenter to feature hockey.

That's the power of Olympic hockey. You get the best players in the world, you put medals, prestige, and pride on the line, and then you play 60 minutes of great hockey. Or more.

And just a few words to Russian players like Alex Ovechkin complaining about their disallowed goal when the net got dislodged: It's your country, your Olympics, your rink, your net, your moorings. Either build stronger nets, or build stronger character and accept the result and move on with your life.

The NHL doesn't make any money off the Olympics. Not directly. The NHL teams stop playing, and NHL players risk injury only a few weeks before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The NHL doesn't get a dime from ticket sales or TV advertising, even though everyone is watching the League's players play.

By the way, the injury risk argument is lame. The NHL plays 4,920 regular season games every 4 years, along with 60 playoff series. There are 30 Olympic hockey games every 4 years. You can't schedule 82 regular season games then argue that an athlete playing 6-7 more is an unacceptable risk.

The way the NHL should view Olympic hockey is like a really popular and convincing infomercial. It's free advertising. The NHL spends huge amounts of money trying to promote the game, particularly to kids. The Olympics do that for free. And do so with more success.

How many kids out there saw TJ Oshie on Saturday then wanted to develop shooting moves like him? How many young goalies out there saw Jonathan Quick in net and wanted to learn how to stop shots like him?

Before the Olympics only a handful of people knew who TJ Oshie was. The Olympics turned him into a star. And the NHL desperately lacks famous star player, particularly American star players.

The NHL needs to realize that hockey is a regional, niche sport. It has a cult following. Which is a polite way of saying that it doesn't have broad appeal but the relatively small number of fans it has are fanatics.

The Olympics don't convert millions of new fans, just like the World Cup doesn't create armies of new soccer fans when the US does well. However, the Olympics do recruit a number new followers to the cult. More kids will want to play, will ask their parents to take them to a game, will watch highlights online. They'll want a TJ Oshie shirt for their birthday. And guess what, NHL, you get money from that. And when more people play hockey, more people watch hockey. You make money from that too, NHL.

So instead of focusing on the short term buck, and the immediate revenue you don't make from the Olympics, think of them as free advertising/recruiting for your game/cult.

Look at it like this. If NBC Sports had said to the NHL "We're going to promote the game of hockey for hours and hours in the next few weeks. We'll use NBC, NBC Sports, CNBC, MSNBC, USA. We'll put the women's finals on NBC. We'll put USA on NBC Sports and Canada on USA. We'll show Sweden and Finland and the Czech Republic and Switzerland and Russia and Slovakia. We'll promote the game of hockey for free, we'll get countries riled up, we'll stir national pride, we'll make everyone wake up at 7:30am on a Saturday just to watch hockey, and all we want in return is 6-7 games from NHL players...

The NHL would be dumb not to take that deal.

The NHL will be dumb not to take that deal.

Photo Credit:
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

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