Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Is Fighting Part of NHL’s Marketing, Or Are They Embarrassed By It

“It’s time we took some action because, if something isn’t done soon, it will ruin the game for all of us. I’ve never seen so much stuff like this. I never thought it could be so bad.  It’s becoming a disaster,” he said. “The idiot owners, the incompetent coaches, the inept players are dragging the game into the mud. They’re destroying it with their senseless violence.”   When one of hockey’s top players speaks out you would expect that the league and the NHLPA would listen and perhaps respond.   Except the NHL has never fully articulated its stance on fighting and violence despite ample opportunity to do so.

The opening quote was from Bobby Hull in 1975, taken from an excellent National Post article on hockey violence, and of course resulted in zero progress.  He is one of the rare players who have spoken out against violence and fighting, a group that includes Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Terry O’Reilly.   More often player quotes in the media are fully in support of fighting, usually from the combatants themselves but the culture is pretty universally supported by NHLPA members who skate on the top 3 lines.

But getting a handle on what the NHL or NHLPA thinks is pretty tough.   Over the past several years there have been lots of ugly fighting incidents, from opening face-off brawls to players being concussed and falling to the ice.  But you would find it difficult to find an official statement from league headquarters on any of them.

Let’s run through some past media articles to see if we can get a sense of the NHL’s stance on fighting.

In March of 2009 an article on NHL.com talked about the NHL proposed rule changes that would reduce or eliminate staged fights.  It was part of a discussion at the GM meetings.

"The presentation (Monday) on our stats, the history of fighting, where we are at today, injuries, was very extensive," NHL Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said. "We tried to categorize staged fights, fights that were responding to legal and illegal hits, a lot of things. The idea was to understand where fighting is at today and what the League has done about fighting over the years when they thought fighting had become unfair and where and if fighting belonged in the game."

I’d like to see that presentation but updated with current statistics and viewpoints from those outside of the league executives.   It would be interesting to see the general manager’s reaction to the recent survey that showed the majority of Canadian hockey fans would like to see fighting banned.  Needless to say the proposed rule changes went nowhere because the NHLPA did not agree with the direction being taken.

NHL advertisers have occasionally spoken up to protect their brand from being tarnished by NHL’s on-ice product.   Air Canada issued just such a statement in March of 2011, 

“From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents…”

In this case Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner responded:

“Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that is their prerogative, just like it is the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don’t think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service.”

Instead of addressing the violence issue, either positively or negatively, Bettman chose to issue a thinly veiled threat that teams would switch their travel arrangements to other airlines.   Not really the right way to manage your image. 

In September of the same year the newly appointed Brendan Shanahan made the following comments during a CBC interview:

"We're definitely very serious in making advancements in studying blows to the head, we have to also look at fighting," said Shanahan.  "What the final decision is, I can't tell you now, that's something we're obviously going to have to look at, but there's no way we would ever deny that it's not something we're looking at closely," he added.

Just 3 months later, in December 2011, Donald Fehr responded to recent studies on sports concussions:

“The findings released by Boston University to The New York Times regarding CTE found in Derek Boogaard’s brain, and the forthcoming medical journal article, should be seriously considered by everyone associated with the game,” Fehr said in a statement. “It is certainly important information that we will be discussing with the players.”

This sounds very positive; the NHL (Shanahan) and NHLPA (Fehr) talking about being progressive when it comes to violence and fighting.  Slow down.  That same month we heard from Bettman.

“Our fans tell us they like the level of physicality in our game. With some people fighting is an issue but it’s not the issue some suggest it is.”

Contrast that leadership statement with other hockey executives in February of 2012:

Nicholson, the CEO of Hockey Canada, told the Times: “We want to get rid of fighting as quickly as we can. Our ultimate goal is to remove fighting.”

USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean was similarly straightforward, saying: “We’re an amateur sports organization that is concerned most about the safety of our members and marketing our sport. If our penalties for fighting were more onerous, that would serve both those purposes very well.”

If you think that comparison is harsh, and that the NHL is not given enough credit for reducing fighting then consider an article posted on NHL.com that covered the March 2012, Devils – Rangers brawl after the opening faceoff.

The National Hockey League also apparently liked it, with the video of the donnybrook getting feature billing on the league's website and no fines or suspensions issued.

Even as both Hockey Canada and Hockey USA look at ways to reduce fighting, at least in minor and junior hockey, there was not a hint of disapproval of the mass brawl in New York among NHL players and coaches Tuesday.

During the playoffs of April 2012, when numerous fights and vicious hits where getting wide spread media coverage, the NHL had to respond to advertisers and sponsors who were concerned:

NHL COO John Collins "admitted the league is hearing from its business partners over the rash of suspensions and fines arising out of the on-ice antics, and the ensuing media coverage." Collins: "They’re paying us a lot of money to associate with our brand. So when our brand is under attack in the press on issues as serious as player safety, they want to know that the league is on top of it, and has a plan for dealing with it and hear the league articulate it.

Except that no plan was ever released to the media.  Perhaps they had one and it was only provided to business partners.  I’m not sure why it would be top secret but other than an obvious crack down by referees in the ensuring rounds of the 2012 playoffs, no further statements were released by NHL executives.

So what is the NHL’s image or brand strategy?   The NHL’s brand should be the idea or image that they want their advertisers, sponsors and fans to connect with.  It should immediately communicate their values and give the league its identity in the market.  So is fighting part of the NHL’s brand or image?  I don’t think anyone really knows for sure and my opinion is that they are conflicted about how to articulate their position.

If they come out in favor of fighting, and actively promote it as part of their brand, then they risk alienating current and potential advertisers.  I don’t think that Tim Horton’s or ScotiaBank, both very large supporters of youth hockey, would want their brands linked to a sport that openly condones athletes punching each other as “part of the game”.   And I suspect new advertisers would also think twice, unless they manufactured bandages and ice packs.   I would also have to assume that the NHL executives know that hockey would never be taken seriously by major networks, sports media and casual fans because they would be perceived as wrestling on ice.  Promoting staged fights that have nothing to do with the sport except pander to a particular set of fans.

If the NHL announces that fighting has to be taken out of the game then there will be considerable fan backlash.   Real hockey fans would remain committed to the sport but there would be a considerable amount of grief that they would have to put up with, from social media in particular.  The rule changes would have to be implemented carefully so that the hard and fact nature of the game is not lost.  The last thing they would want is to be identified as becoming too soft.  It’s also likely that the NHLPA would attempt to block them on every new rule designed to curb fighting, as they have for the last two decades.

The NHLPA isn’t doing the NHL any favors in resolving this issue.  The two groups have never operated as partners in protecting and growing the game and the issue of fighting also appears to be a point of conflict.  It is well known that a survey from early in 2012 showed 98% of players didn’t want to see fighting banned.  We won’t see any progressive action until the players association and league executives can agree on the direction.

I think that the NHL is stuck in the middle ground, afraid to push one way or the other, or to definitively come out with a statement that is for or against fighting.  They are hoping that fighting just disappears or that the Junior Leagues send them less enforcers.  Perhaps they are waiting for the NHLPA to wake up to fan surveys and medical experts, and finally work with them to reduce the dropping of gloves.   But hoping and waiting won’t get it done.  That takes leadership.

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