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.