Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Somebody's Else's Right Fees

Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, undoubtedly will be at tomorrow's gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada. About the only positive attribute of the empty suits and skirts who make up the Olympic bureaucracy is that they really do love sports. It's an abusive relationship sometimes, but the love is there.

Rogge will of course not take sides -- visibly. But inside, it's a good bet Rogge will be rooting like mad for the U.S. Their victory is his best shot to keep Olympic hockey as a real world championship.

If the U.S. team, every member of whom currently is employed in the National Hockey League, wins before what is bound to be a sizable live U.S. television audience, then even the dimwitted Gary Bettman and the even more dimwitted NHL owners who employ him might figure out that the Winter Olympic tournament is their best, hell, only functioning marketing device.

It has been my theory for many years that the purpose of the NHL is to make all the other greedy, shortsighted, pompous, useless sports organizations on earth look good by comparison. The IOC, FIFA, you name it -- next to hockey's biggest pro league, they are models of judicious wisdom and farsighted business planning. Watch Bettman in action for a couple of days, and you feel like having Bud Selig's face replace Teddy Roosevelt's on Mt. Rushmore.

Bettman has been in action this month, fretting about the participation of NHL players in the Olympics. All hockey fans and players on the planet love the Olympic tournament, so naturally the NHL doesn't. Shutting down the league for a few weeks in the middle of its meaningless miserable regular season costs team owners a few bucks. Not so long ago, those very same team owners shut down the league for an entire season because they claimed playing the schedule cost them too much money, but never mind that.

We will digress for a moment to consider the foolishness of this contention. The NHL's largest cross to bear is that casual American sports fans won't watch its games on TV, depriving it of the broadcast riches it feels are its due (ever notice how many American rich people have come to maintain that they are ENTITLED to money without, you know, earning any?). So here's a hockey event that casual sports fans, or even non-fans, DO watch. Here's an event that puts hockey front and center of our national sports conversation. Honestly, even over at AIG, they'd figure out that this event was good for business.

The NHL only sees money going somewhere else. When TV shows Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, wearing a Canadian Olympic team sweater, the league doesn't say, you can't buy advertising like that, it thinks "That sweater cost $157, and we didn't see a nickel of it."

Funny thing. Spend your life bending over for nickels, and you won't see the armored car that runs you over. It's full of somebody's else money they earned by lifting up their eyes from the ground and taking a gander at opportunities.

A U.S. victory would be an opportunity the NHL couldn't squander. The team's players would go back to their respective NHL clubs as not just celebrities, but national heroes -- not at the level of 1960s astronauts, but still heroes. Mike Eruzione has lived a full life off hockey heroship, and he never played after 1980. Fans who saw the U.S. win gold in 2010 could see most players on the team in action next weekend.

Rogge and the IOC want to keep their events as festivals of world championships. So he'll be pulling, covertly, for the U.S. He's probably learned that when dealing with the NHL, subtlety is useless. The league doesn't do nuance.

I do. It is my contention that should Canada win tomorrow, it would suit the NHL's book as a business proposition just as well as would an American triumph. The best marketing proposition ever created is the simple, increasingly obsolete idea of offering the consumer a desirable product made to the best of your business's ability.

Ask yourself this, Bruins fans. Does an early March game with the Nashville Predators fall into that concept? Or does it make clear that much of what the NHL presents is an attempt to wring more nickels out of fans who love their sport and team not wisely but too well?

By far he biggest fundamental complaint and source of alienation of U.S. sports fans from their games is the belief that it's all just another racket, that everybody in every game is only in it for the money, and that their interest in presenting the marvelous entertainment that is honest athletic competition runs a nearly-bankrupt second. The NHL and NBA regular seasons are perhaps the best evidence for that complaint there is.

The NHL, in one of its loopier moves, once allowed ESPN to run a campaign of commercials for broadcasts of the playoffs on the theme that the post-season was real, serious hockey. Did the league think fans were too stupid to grasp the obvious corollary that the regular season is fake, unserious hockey?

The Olympic tournament is one case where fan cynicism does not exist, because the event ISN'T a racket. I would argue that the NHL pros actually are far closer to the Olympic ideal of Baron de Coubertin than are the skiers, figure skaters, etc. For those worthy but mostly unknown (and, by the way, highly professional) athletes, the Games are a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cash in on their life's devotion to their discipline. They are playing for money on the table. Big money.

The NHLers aren't. They've ALREADY cashed in on their discipline. They are playing for, well, for glory. Personal glory, the glory of the team, national glory. If glory sounds too pejorative for you (it shouldn't) substitute "pride." For three weeks once every four years, these wealthy athletes are the gentlemen amateurs who made up the field at the 1896 Athens Games.

Tomorrow at 3 p.m. EST, the hockey teams of Canada and the U.S. will represent their countries. More than that, they will represent the idea of their sport, and the idea of sports itself.

Only soulless cretins could oppose that concept. Soulless cretins who are bound to lose money running a professional sports league, and who deserve to.


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