The NHL needs its LeBron James

Let’s pretend there’s no lockout for a moment. The NHL, at its peak, has a massive identity crisis on its hands. I know we traditionally include it as one of “the big four” when looking at professional leagues — NFL, MLB, NBA being the others — but if we’re to do an honest appraisal of where it sits, perhaps “the big three and their semi-relevant friend” is more accurate.

It’s unfortunate. We know what a quality product the NHL is; any given night affords you the opportunity to have your mind blown by a thoroughly entertaining game. At some point though, the focus of the league has to be how to get additional interest in the daily goings on. The product is there, but the marketing plan is not. While it’s obviously a problem that cannot be solved overnight, there are cues to be taken from other leagues and applied to the game of hockey so this sport can be grown to its appropriate size in North America.

Step one won’t be easy, but it will be necessary. The NHL needs its LeBron James.

I’m not quite sure what it is about basketball that gets hockey fans in a tizzy, but it unlocks some sort of rageahol fueled machismo which combusts in spectacular fashion. Unfortunately, this means I probably lost a few of you after typing the words “LeBron James” and you won’t grasp the irony of flaming me in the comments because you skipped this paragraph.

Alas, this the power King James brings to the NBA and it extends well beyond the fact he is, objectively speaking, a generational talent. Rather, it’s because he’s a one man lightning rod. When LeBron James is involved, the NBA fanbase, and a large part of the world as a whole, stops. Many are rooting for him, even more want to see him flop, but everybody pays attention. What’s more, his value extends well beyond entrenched NBA fans, hence why so many of you have turned purple because I’m citing basketball as a better way of doing business than hockey. Everyone in the world knows who he is and a fair portion of them have a very strong opinion on his existence.

Case in point: on Tuesday theScore’s Facebook page (Like it!) asked, after he was given his championship ring, how many rings LeBron James will finish his career with. 204 likes, 215 comments and 17 shares later and that’s a pretty solid reaction to a single person’s future as far as the social media world goes.

Hockey needs that catalyst to launch them into another stratosphere which is why (sorry fellow Canadians) we should all be hoping for America’s answer to The Great One to come about.

I should note that this individual doesn’t NEED to be American, but for those of you who think that a Canadian or Russian or Swede or whoever will be given the time of day by ESPN or other major news outlets, I present you Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who are the closest we’ve gotten since 1999. The number of damns given is incredibly low outside of the hockey community.

The beauty of LBJ is not just that he has become a sporting icon, but that so many narratives flow out of his career. When he burst on to the scene he elicited the inevitable Michael Jordan comparisons, then it became a question of when he would win a championship, then everyone got mad because he went to Miami and formed a championship super team, and now it’s a question of what he can accomplish before he retires.

Did I mention that since LeBron helped form Miami’s “Big 3” the NBA has seen a ratings and revenue spike to rival that of the Jordan era after years of floundering? Because that happened.

Success for a league in the forum of modern sporting consciousness relies on that league’s ability to weave a narrative. In the case of the NBA, the “Lebron vs. the world” storyline has made them relevant again after years of ambivalence. Major League Baseball is already winning with Miguel Cabrera acheiving the Triple Crown because several storylines spike from it including the Tigers’ run to the World Series and whether or not he will beat out Mike Trout for the MVP. (He shouldn’t, so there)

The king of the narrative, of course, is the NFL. There’s added theatre inherent to a sport that plays once a week, but the NFL has set the tone for the ability to create a storyline. Everyone reading this is surely familiar with the “Brady vs. Manning” and “Manning vs. Manning” calibre storylines each week, but from that are also more broadly reaching storylines such as the “post-Katrina Saints” winning a Super Bowl and helping rebuild New Orleans. The NFL channels Hollywood as well as anything on the planet, and their ability to construct a plot rivals that of the WWE.

This is also a big reason why many marketing and psychology professors believe that the NFL has been the only league to successfully tap into the prized female demographic. Now it is believed that upwards of 44 percent (!) of ALL FOOTBALL FANS are women. As recently as 20 years ago, that demographic split was a pipe dream and now every other league is being forced to play catch up.

The NHL desperately needs someone — anyone — to emerge as a catalyst for narratives in the league which appeal to an American audience. Canada is money in the bank but Canada’s influence renders them irrelevant on the global stage. It’s American households who need to be entertained because they are the trendsetters. The role of LeBron James in the NHL’s script needs to be filled by someone who we all simultaneously love to love and love to hate, and we can recall what NHL season it was based on where their career arc lies. It won’t be easy — or quick at that — but that powerful icon should come one day and they will do wonders.

Until then, go the NFL route and weave those stories ’til your weaver is sore, and maybe, just maybe, the world will take notice.

Assuming the lockout ends of course.

Comments (32)

  1. Basketball is for pussies.

  2. I am an American, and I hate these stories. The NHL and hockey is popular enough right now. The game is not in crisis.The players and owners are fighting over profit not losses.

    More American media attention just means more stupid ESPN non-sports stories and more corporate interest in the game which will make ti harder for the general public to access the game.

    • The NFL is the biggest league in the world. If we were to poll the general public would they really say that they have trouble accessing the game?

      Also, I’d argue that if the profits were big enough there would be no lockout.

      • I mean personally accessing. I see NHL players at the rink during the season. I don’t have to buy a $15,000 PSL to buy tickets to my local team.
        Yes, we get Hard Knocks and endless stories about speeding tickets and coach’s decisions, but I don’t think that popularity and attention has increased my interest in football or baseball.

        I can buy NHL package and see every game. I have access to all the information on the sport I need. Why do I care if owners make more money on their TV contracts?

        • This doesn’t have to do with TV money. This has to do with a league desperately needing a reason to be relevant.

          The more popular the sport is = higher enrolment at the grassroots level = a better product at the pro level down the road.

          This is about setting forth a cycle that’s objectively beneficial for the sport itself and has nothing to do with the labour issues of the day.

          • Relevant to whom? I don’t care if it is relevant to NBA fans or advertising agencies

            “The more popular the sport is = higher enrolment at the grassroots level = a better product at the pro level down the road.” I think this pertains more to the footprint of the league. I do agree with the expansion strategy and getting strong teams in California and Texas with commitments to building rinks and leagues. Now we are seeing those kids come into the league.

            But that is happening already. You said “need” as if the sport is in crisis. It’s only in crisis short-term due to greed. The popularity in terms of registered players is higher than ever. There is no “Need.”

            Now certailnly higher popularity would help drive traffic to fine websites like yours, and I certainly would not be unhappy to find that you and Justin were getting paid handsomely for this content that I obviously enjoy reading.

      • And there are lockouts/strikes or threats of the same in the NFL, MLB, and NBA every time a CBA is coming up.

        • Comparing regular season games lost across leagues over the last two decades is a good measure of who’s making the real profits.

          • But that’s also tied to managment of the league on the ownership side and the solidarity of the unions.

            Those games lost are also tied to the difference between haves/have nots on the owners side and what they want out of negotiations.

            And a weak union will break under the thought of lost wages.

      • “The NFL is the biggest league in the world. If we were to poll the general public would they really say that they have trouble accessing the game?”

        NFL has broad appeal for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is it doesn’t really require a huge commitment to follow. One out of every 7 days, usually on a Sunday, when nobody would otherwise have anything else going on, you watch a game, you talk about it in the office the next morning when you wouldn’t be working anyway, because it’s monday and nobody does anything on mondays for some reason. With something like hockey, you need to watch a game ever 2-3 days for 7 or 8 months. The super casual fan isn’t making a commitment like that to any sport.

        The other big reason the NHL’s the most successful sport is it’s the first national, city-based team sport to wink-wink-nudge-nudge embrace gambling.

        “Also, I’d argue that if the profits were big enough there would be no lockout.”

        I’d argue that the NFL, which is rolling in profits, locked its referees out over a difference in dollars that amounts to less than what the average owner pays in car insurance every year, only deciding to pay them when their silent partners in the gambling industry threatened to start breaking the owners’ legs (metaphorically speaking).

        ‘d also argue that the species of person who owns an NHL team isn’t all that different than the species of person who owns an NFL team.

  3. I can honestly say I dont ever imagine there being a LeBron type figure in the NHL, especially an American one.
    The kids with huge talent all seem to have their personalities muted.
    Basketball can have an individual shine much brighter than in hockey
    and as far as an American born and trained one? Unless he finds someway away from the creativity-stifling cog-in-the-machine USA hockey methods, no way will an American truly be a breakout, stand-alone, generational player. There’s no room for one in USA youth systems

    • You got it exactly.

      The NFL and NBA can have teams that are entirely dominated by a single player. Who cares if Kobe Bryant does not know how to defend you can tune in and watch him literally score 50% of his teams points much like the way Lebron or other superstar teams have the “impact player”.

      The NFL needs the one good marketing QB (Manning, Manning, Brady, Brees, Rothlisberger etc.) and thats what people tune into, the average fan don’t care about how the other 49 players on the team are exactly that, team players (for the most part lol).

      MLB has markets in the USA that are so strong that it will always be top dog, not too mention the narratives that they seem to pop up every day.

      NHL is a team game, no one player can truly make a team into a championship contender and when put through the Canadian hockey system you learn it is a team game, and as others have pointed out muzzled of a personality.

  4. This won’t happen until NHL teams stop muzzling their players. NHL 24/7 is a good start.

  5. If the NBA really had a better way of doing business, Ol’ Gary would have stolen it by now!

  6. I must be in the “other” demographic or whatever because whenever I see or hear “Lebron” my reaction is to turn off/change the channel/turn the page. Blech.

  7. The league was just starting to build a narrative with the Winter Classic and now with the 24/7 coverage, and they shot themselves in the foot. There are plenty of interesting stories in the NHL, but when they get turned into bargaining chips instead of powerful marketing tools, the league is taking a step backward. It doesn’t do anybody any good to create an NHL LeBron if nobody sees him.

  8. Whoever wrote this must be completely oblivious to the percentage of the Nhl revenue growth over the past years. He also must be pretty uneducated about the nhl, or hockey at that. Worst article I have ever read, what a waste of time.

    • Hey just like reading your comment was a waste of my time!

    • Thanks for reading Curtis! Really appreciate taking time out of your day to drop an ad hominem argument into our comment section.

      For the record, I’m very familiar with NHL revenue growth. Doesn’t change the fact that it is wholly negligible in the context of the sporting world, or that the bottom 27 teams in the league combine to run a $44 million deficit in operating revenue.

      If you’d ever like to educate me on how the NHL or hockey actually works, my email is listed on here. I’d love to chat. I must really be missing quite a bit to have produced the worst article you have ever read.

  9. The thing with a LeBron coming up in hockey is you need money to play hockey as a kid. You need sticks, balls or pucks, skates, nets (gotta raise goaltenders too). I know it can be done, but for the most part, its so much easier for a kid to get into basketball, soccer or football where all you really need is just a ball.

    A big part of LeBron’s story is his beginnings.

  10. An American Gretzky.

  11. ah, sidney crosby…..

  12. In case you didn’t know hockey is a canadian game, we are humble people who don’t need to theatrics. Let the other sports have their catalyst. Real hockey fans now who the talents are , it’s people like u who keep raving about the other sports and wanting the nhl to be more hollywood. Why don’t you ask crosby before everygame to go throw some powder up like lebron does. Hockey players are adults, the other athletes are kids with gimmicks

  13. It’s people like who, who have destroyed the game.

    Okay now that i have your attention, i’ll be honest…it’s not entirely your fault, but you’re not helping with stories like this.

    You sound like a guy who likes hockey in Phoenix, otherwise why would you suggest that “The more popular the sport is = higher enrollment at the grassroots level = a better product at the pro level down the road.” (way to misspell enrollment by the way, fixed that for ya)

    You need higher enrollment at the grassroots level? Do you live in Canada? If you do and you’re not stuck in a hole in the ground than you ought to know that it’s not a level of interest that affects the enrollment (which, by the way, actually isn’t even a problem…there are literally tens of thousands per LEVEL of hockey in every major city in Canada….and we’re not even talking about rural or townships…so, do the math) it’s actually the cost of the game/enrollment. So, be accurate and suggest the right tinkering if you’re going to tinker, please.

    There’s nothing, or at least there wasn’t before Bettman and his ego’s came in, with the talent pool. It’s strong, it’s talented and skilled. What you’re suggesting, by bringing in a “We need a LeBron James” story is just drama. You want drama, stick to the NBA (and that’s not necessarily a knock on the NBA, i love the NBA…but lets be frank.) We have our talents to love and to hate, whomever they might be in your minds and hearts. But to suggest more tinkering with the game is exactly the major thing that’s wrong with the game.

    There are 2 reasons why you hear people talk about change to hockey nowadays. 1- Misguided stories like this one and 2 – People who know better and continue to say, and have been for YEARS, that the game was fine, always has been and always will be, so long as we stop changing the core of the game and STOP the moronic idea that hockey needs to expand.

    Hockey is a very special sport and for that, it’s a specialty that can’t be brought to all walks of life.

    And that’s the way it should be. That’s one of the main reasons it’s so great.

    Do you really crave to see hockey in Delaware? Banjul? Trondheim?

    No, you shouldn’t, and if you do….honestly….shame on you.

    • I don’t understand why your average sports fan ‘needs’ to be interested in the NHL. A small portion of sports fan are exposed to the game from a young age and even fewer have actually laced up a pair of skates. Of course most average fans can’t relate to hockey, so why do we want these same people to pay attention to hockey because there is drama rather than appreciate the beauty of the game? That’s what we saw with the whole Crosby concussion saga, then hockey gets a bunch of attention from clueless idiots regarding concussions and how fighting needs to be taken out of the game-these same people have never even played the sport!

      It’s nice if hockey gains attention from average sports fans-but only for the right reasons. Drama from idiotic players (a la LeBron) that attracts attention from ESPN is not a good way to bring attention to the game.

    • I had to stop reading your post halfway so hopefully I got this gist of it. You say there is no problem with hockey enrollment? That could not be further from the truth. Enrollment is certainly down. I grew up in the Ottawa Valley (and still live there). When I was a kid my hometown of 1000 people could field TWO minor league hockey teams. Today, we struggle to put up one.

      10 years ago, hockey was everything. It was what we talked about at school, it was what we dreamed about at night. It was something the entire town united in the interest of. I can say with nothing less than absolute certainty that this is no longer the case today, at least not anywhere near where I’m from.

  14. I agree the NHL should market its players better. But its all pro leagues who need to learn better marketing skills. Is it the NBA that markets LeBron or is it himself who puts his name out there… I say the latter.

    Crosby doesnt enjoy the limelight or the drama, goes for many NHL players. Very low key guys unlike other pro sports and thats where it differs. Once ovechkin came in, his lifestyle was compared to a rockstar and Tada! Espn and others start craving more from him…

    But the NHL is doing what it always has done… Be modest in its glory. Its espn and others who need to start finding stories ratger than waiting to come…

  15. I can see how this would be a great marketing idea to attract casual fans. It’s easier to build casual interest if you have a fascinating individual, rather than having to update the non-hockey fan on the compelling history of the Habs and why therefore they should watch.

    Hockey as a sport doesn’t lend itself to this very well though. It’s such a team sport, right down to how players present themselves to the media…making yourself too much of an individual is frowned upon.

    And, as a diehard hockey fan, having individual narratives forced at me all the time would be extremely annoying. I love the histories and team rivalries…I don’t need TSN pushing a OVECHKIN VS. CROSBY storyline at me. So for selfish reasons I also object to the LeBron concept.

  16. I like the NHL the way it is right now. Except for the not playing actual hockey.

    Also, would anyone want to see the NHL’s LeBron being stuffed down our collective throats even more than Crosby is being choked on right now?

    • I agree with you. I would be VERY happy if there was never a LeBron in the NHL. I like that most hockey players are low-key, team guys.

  17. The polarizing nature of this article only proves the author’s point. The fact that many of you are up in arms over this piece shows what kind of impact a catalyst for narrative can have. It creates discussion and in turn it draws more eyeballs to hockey.

    Those of you that claim hockey is fine the way it is, are missing the point. This isn’t about you or any other serious hockey fan. You’re coming back no matter what, every season. The NHL owns your fanship. This is about roping in the casual fan that is not going to be interested by the sport itself.

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