The Incredible Shrinking League

The NHL is coming back. It will be smaller than ever. This is not a bad thing.
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Okay. Deep breath. Hockey is coming.

I feel sort of unqualified to write about this from Mexico, where even less people care about the NHL than do in the United States, but also sort of extra qualified. When the puck drops in a couple weeks, even less people are going to watch hockey than did before. This is what happens when owners in marginal sports leagues alienate their fanbases over relatively piddly amounts of money and power. This is a new reality we must calibrate ourselves to. (We being hockey fans; for everybody else nothing much changes).

Even before the lockout, the NHL was smaller than its self-perception. It was smaller than golf and tennis and MMA. It was smaller than Major League Soccer. (Although it does have one thing in common with the well-managed and upward-trending MLS: it is much more popular in-person than on television). Now the NHL will be smaller still. Shrinking salary cap, shrinking contract lengths, shrinking audience.

The other day on Grantland, Brian Phillips wrote about dismissive comments that FIFA President Sepp Blatter made regarding Major League Soccer. But more than that, Brian was writing about the difference between a sport and a business. “Sport generates economic activity, but sport isn't inherently economic,” Brian wrote. “Sport is just some people playing a game.”

He is right. But the unfortunate corollary is that sport as business has a huge impact on sport as sport. It’s the business that made people want to Be Like Mike, etc etc. It’s the business side of Sepp Blatter’s FIFA that has helped make soccer not just a global phenomenon, but “soccer as global phenomenon” a brand in itself, with K’Naan blaring on the stereo and poor kids playing in a cinematically-lit Buenos Aires alleyway in, somehow, an Adidas commercial.

One way of looking at this would be to say, “okay, the NHL has fucked up its own brand but not even Gary Bettman can ruin Greater Hockey.” This would be true in certain parts of Minnesota and areas further north. Another way of looking at this would be to say that unlike soccer, hockey is not commercially successful or universally popular enough to withstand the continued stupidity of its most famous and successful league.

Even before the last lockout, hockey and the NHL had to think a lot smaller than soccer in terms of global appeal and commercial potential. (In retrospect, some of the NHLs sillier expansion efforts into crowded sunny markets were nothing more than the nocturnal emissions of hubristic millionaire owners).

Now the league’s path toward a leaner, more efficient self is no longer destiny - it is reality, and the NHL must embrace it rather than fight against it. In many cases, hockey teams remain extremely popular locally. Fans will take winning back, but when they do come back (and I think many will; not cancelling the season feels like a victory in itself) they will do so city by city, rather than nationally all at once. Kings fans want to see their banner raised. Nashville fans want to see the Predators’ steady rise to awesomeness amount to something. Rangers fans want to know that last season was not a fluke. In this sense, hockey will be taking on the model of minor league sports. The regional popularity of the Tacoma Rainiers and Albuquerque Isotopes far outweighs national interest in Pacific Coast League baseball.

Minor league does not have to be a slur. It can simply mean a different model. For national fans, or fans like me who don’t live in NHL cities, this might mean that when the NHL comes back, it feels somehow less broadly substantial. The NBC Sports Network remains small-time, and the rushed schedule of the post-lockout season will feel awkward and forced. Hockey will probably remain absent from the greater national sports dialogue, and you know what? That’s okay. Those of us who want to can still watch the games, can still read about it. Even a diminished NHL can still add a measure of equilibrium in the sporting universe (one potentially positive consequence: I stop spending so much time looking at baseball trade rumors). For the NHL to be sustainable, and to eventually begin to grow again, the league must first make itself small. Hockey depends on it.

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