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Sucker Punched

The reinstatement of Todd Bertuzzi had me thinking on the role the League and the media play in how hockey is marketed. With the ink on the CBA still fresh, rule changes, and new strategic partnerships the League is charged with the ambitious task making the game profitable. It might not be next year but here's why they're on the right track.

As most know, the NHL does not make a lot of money. In 2002-03, the NHL reportedly spent more on costs than it got back in revenue (net loss of about $300mln). So, we’re not dealing with a highly profitable, widely coveted, or particularly well-run asset. The lockout and subsequent CBA gives the NHL an opportunity to become more profitable through controls on spending and a (re)emphasis on the concepts that Madison Avenue feels will sell the best. Every decision from this point needs to be viewed through this lens.

Given that, it is easy to frame the decision to reinstate Bertuzzi in large measure as a financial one. Even the way the story was released showed flashes of marketing savvy. The classic "shout and whisper" technique: the Gretzky’s coaching announcement had the effect of diminishing the criticism of the Bertuzzi news later that same day. The NHL needs things to go VERY right in the next couple of years and it needs to be known for more than gratuitous violence. A goal-friendly format was introduced for just that reason. In this way the Bertuzzi reinstatement mirrors the League's own reinvention. Above all, this translates into ticket sales and I imagine even those who find Bertuzzi’s actions deplorable will buy tickets to boo him in rinks around the country.

Hockey is a brutal game. Yet, that is principally what the novice fan pays to see. It is a great game for all the reasons it’s not appreciated. Go to Columbus and show me a hockey fan and I’ll show you a Jody Shelley fan. Which is why the Bertuzzi outrage was such bunk. To celebrate the game for its violent streak yet also condemn it when someone crosses some artificially determined moral line strikes me as ridiculous. Fans want to see players toe a violent edge but not cross it. When they do, everyone scapegoats them. The NHL has two options: either decrease your tolerance for acceptable levels of gratuitous violence through rule change or leave it the same, discipline the offenders, accept the public image black eye, and move on. But it is disingenious for the League and, to a lesser extent, the media to refuse to move the line in order to sell the game while also coming down so hard on Bertuzzi.

The media coverage after Bertuzzi’s attack was predictable. What prevents the game from gaining any momentum, was the media coverage before the attack. Back when Steve Moore dummied Markus Naslund, questions abounded as to why no Canuck "stood up" and fed Moore his lunch immediately. When it comes to hockey, the media looks no deeper than the box score, the fight, or the great sound bite because they don't have to and at the end of the day I am too stupid to tell the difference. The adage should read "It may lead, but only if it bleeds". This is the price the League felt it needed to pay to sell seats. How is that strategy at all enlightening for the fan?

The League needs success stories in order to flourish. The first of these is the OLN deal because it shifts the media paradigm. The League will no longer have to compete for shelf space and can now begin to challenge the assumptions, concepts, and values for which it has come to be known.