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Protecting Your Assets

by Ralph Strangis / Dallas Stars

It’s just been announced that the NHL and NBC Sports Group have agreed to a “landmark television and media rights deal”.  This is a significant step for our league.  Consider my cap tipped to Commissioner Bettman and all on both sides who got this done.  The Versus coverage is first-rate and NBC Sports is – well – NBC Sports.  We’ve come a long ways from the ‘Merv Griffin’ type studio set on the first (then) OLN broadcasts…

The NHL has taken a beating over the years.  Some of the criticism just, some not, but we’re all still here and in fact, by all reports, we’re stronger than ever.  I’ll tell you from the inside I’ve seen progress.  Listen, every business has issues, and every business operating in multiple locations have some stronger and weaker branches.  But we’re dealing with that and I have confidence that this league is getting way more right than wrong lately.  (For now – let’s table balancing the schedule and eliminating the opportunity to move up the standings by losing a game – but I digress…)

I went to the NHL Awards in Las Vegas last summer and left thinking “wow – this was a really good and big-time event”.  Then came HBO’s CAPS/PENS 24-7.  Superb.  Even casual fans and in some cases non-hockey fans told me how great it was.

The game is fast and fun.  I like shootouts.  We have big name stars and an abundance of terrifically entertaining young players to watch.  This year’s Western Conference playoff race was spine tingling, and most nights, I must admit, I left the building feeling pretty good about the show I just watched, even if I wasn’t thrilled with the scoreboard. 

But I have a suggestion.  And I’ve stayed out of the “Rule 48 Debate” till now.  A couple of weeks into the off-season I guess I want to put off cleaning the garage for another day or two.  So I sit down and do this.  Indulge me…

I love the NFL.  Of course they’re not perfect either, but they’re King Kong, so I always look at them for guidance.  In terms of television and marketing and the business of recruiting and retaining eyeballs, they are without peer.  And perhaps we could take at least one page out of their playbook.

My observation is that the NFL is really good at and has historically worked their problems backwards from their desired outcomes.  I have no first-hand knowledge of any of this - but this is my guess based on being a longtime fan and follower. 

I believe that about two decades ago, when quarterbacks were fair game and being rag-dolled around and there were meetings and discussions and owners were all struggling with language and rule changes and opposition regarding such drastic changes that somebody stood up and said; “gee guys – I know we’re a contact sport and all and I don’t know how the rule should read – but I think it’s a really bad business model to have our best players sitting out for long stretches every season.  What do you guys think?”

I really believe it went something like that.  That’s how it started, and intellect and good business prevailed over the macho-culturists and has been their league’s guiding light ever since.  And while I’m sure the NFL is concerned with player safety by legislating against helmet to helmet hits – they also know full well that the players being protected are the games stars and are Fantasy Football draftable commodities.   The NFL has made it clear that although they can’t protect everybody all the time, they would really prefer not to go through too many seasons with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson watching from the sidelines.

Oh there was very strong opposition at first, and always there is the debate when more of it comes. I remember watching Terry Bradshaw shake his head on the set years ago and say – “man – it wasn’t like that when I played – I mean – should we get these guys dresses or what?” 

Well Terry – when you played guys were a hundred pounds lighter, twenty-five percent slower, and weren’t wearing hard-edged body armor.  And my own memory  and observation is that the NFL lives with the criticism and the fines and the DB’s who yell and scream that life isn’t fair.   Sorry guys, it isn’t. 

Hockey is different.  There is no pocket for Brad Richards or Joe Thornton to stand in.  Alexander Ovechkin and Matt Cooke are going to be on the ice and in the same space together quite a bit.  And Jamie Benn will now have his number circled on every opponent whiteboard pretty much every night for the rest of his career.   And I don’t know exactly what the answer is.

But in the room – it might be a pretty good thing if someone would follow the NFL’s lead and say something like this;  “Fella’s – we just signed a 2 billion dollar rights deal, we’ve got some really good things going on… and I know hockey’s a contact sport and we like the term ‘hockey play’ and we like fighting and hitting and all that – but raise your hand if you think having Sidney Crosby out of the playoffs right now is a good business model”.

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