Small-market teams have something to offer

8/25/2005 - NHL

This starts with a consumer warning: Fans in the NHL's "nontraditional" markets would be well advised to brace themselves.

As the league relaunches, you're in for a new wave of "you don't belong" derision.

It's nothing personal. Well, at least not most of the time. You're in the markets that are considered Bettman's Folly, and you are the scapegoats and easy targets for put-downs -- some deserved, but many not.

This isn't going to be unprecedented, of course.

On the last night the NHL competed in anger -- well, at least not including a bargaining table -- there was a curious reaction in some quarters to the absence of either riotous or raucous revelry in the Tampa Bay region. (Which brings us to a pet peeve: Saying anything happening "in Tampa Bay," whether a football or hockey game, a chiropractors' convention, or a Rolling Stones concert, means it is happening on the water ... or at least on a boat.)

The question sprang from the traveling media corps, as well as those jealously watching from afar: How could anyone say this was a hockey town?

More specifically, how could anyone say this is a hockey town if, a couple of hours after the Lightning claimed the Stanley Cup, nobody was rocking cars, lighting bonfires or throwing up on statues in downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg or Clearwater?

Dale Mabry Boulevard was pretty much traffic-free, not the site of a spontaneous bumper-to-bumper, horn-honking celebration in which folks who didn't know one another -- and never would meet again -- offered each other high signs or high-fives.

The area didn't come to a standstill, and many folks were on time for work or tee times the next morning.

Martin St. Louis was not being touted, not even temporarily, as a mayoral candidate in any of the metro area's cities -- and, yes, there were still a few instances of overhearing his name pronounced as if he were the city on the Mississippi River with the Gateway Arch.


It has been fashionable to grouse that one of the many negatives of the lockout was that the Stanley Cup, at least figuratively, spent the longest offseason wintering in Florida as the ultimate "snowbird."

Oh, the indignity of it all.

It was almost as if we expected the Earl of Derby to call the NHL and say: "Hey, that wasn't what my ancestor had in mind!"

What often seems to be forgotten is that the definition of NHL nontraditional markets not only has always been open to debate but also has fluctuated wildly. That was true not just in the Original Six days but also when Charlie Finley's hockey team in the "other" bay area wore uniforms that at the time seemed embarrassingly garish, when some even wondered why the league could even think of expanding to Pittsburgh. And it remains true even now, when games are played virtually adjacent to Ryman Auditorium, the famous former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

The lockout has only made it more fashionable to consider it an affront that league standings include cities that 50 years ago would have been considered suitable sites for what-happens-here-stays-here board of governors meetings but certainly not suitable as the homes of franchises.

The main reason is that these burgs represent a strategy that, on balance, didn't work.

Expanding to 30 teams and allowing franchise shifts, dotting the Sun Belt with teams and even going to what seemed to be unlikely cities in other regions (i.e., Columbus), was designed to do two things: one, in the case of expansion, put immediate welcome-to-the-club cash in the other owners' pockets; and, two, expand the league's attractiveness as a U.S. television property.

No. 1 worked.

No. 2 didn't.

That failure has more to do with the game's not catching on as a television property in Portland and Sacramento, Montgomery and New Orleans, Des Moines and Kansas City than with the "new" league cities themselves.

But that won't put the brakes on the inevitable renewed onslaught on markets such as Florida, Nashville, Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix and even -- if the Avalanche slip and the sellout streak becomes history -- Colorado.

The ridicule will pick up steam, as if it were covered and guaranteed in Section II, Paragraph 21, Clause 5 (a) of the recently ratified CBA.

But here's the contradiction: Although so much of this is tied to the "it's our sport" snobbery that has helped slow the NHL's acceptance among general sports fans deciding whether to give the league a shot, the new CBA is supposed to be all about growing the game. And if the attitude -- in the seats, in the press box, on the sports cable television networks -- is that new fans and nontraditional markets are anathema, it perpetuates the kind of thinking that helped the NHL skate head down, headfirst into a brick wall.

I'm going to be presumptuous enough to consider myself a spokesman for those prone to defend the nontraditional markets against the cacophony of derision. It always has bemused me when empty seats in Boston, Chicago and Edmonton are considered the result of savvy consumerism while empty seats in Raleigh, N.C.; Sunrise, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn., are because they're rotten hockey markets.

I've never understood the mentality that there's something wrong with new fans' climbing on bandwagons or even patronizing bad teams, as if coaxing new consumers into the fold is an insult to Rocket Richard's memory. It's as if devoted followers of the Barenaked Ladies, the Canadian rock group, and rock music critics believed only folks who bought the group's first CD should be allowed to buy tickets for the next tour. There's nothing wrong with Vince Gill and Amy Grant's becoming hockey fans and being able to ask Canadian Shania Twain at the Country Music Awards who she thinks is going to win the Cup this year.

But here's the corresponding part of the deal. Longtime hockey fans in the nontraditional markets can help out all of us who have defended the concept of "new" markets over the years. We're the folks who point out things such as that even nontraditional markets have rinks and youth programs and older fans who were raised elsewhere, and that there's nothing wrong with having fans who are learning the rule book and the game's traditions on the fly.

Help us out.

When the local television sportscaster mispronounces every scorer's name in the highlights, call the station and complain.

When local sports columnists, even in major markets, haven't been to NHL games in what seems to be decades, ignore the sport or -- even worse -- take clich├ęd shots at it, challenge them to at least be in a building at the same time the Zamboni does its work.

While avoiding the lame argument that anyone who disagrees with you "must not know the game," it's still OK to ask why the panel or even serious discussion shows always seem to have writers opining about the NHL's latest "black eye."

Ask why when the NBA or MLB goes in the tank somewhere and attendance slips, nobody says: "See, this isn't a [basketball/baseball] town!"

Argue with your friends that it's not mandatory to memorize the top three lines of every team coming into town but that it makes following the game a lot more fun.

But in the meantime, either everyone has to buy into this grow-the-game philosophy, which includes at least a tacit acceptance of the nontraditional markets, or the NHL should contract immediately to 12 teams.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."