By Michael Spinner

Has anybody else noticed that the National Hockey League is in some serious trouble? We're not talking about a situation where there is a lock-out because two sides can't agree over a few millions of dollars here and there. We're talking about two sides who are basically speaking different languages. It's kind of like I envision first contact with intelligent space life… there are all kinds of words and sentences and hand motions and body expressions - but nothing is really being said and both sides are getting angrier by the minute.

On one side, you have the players who claim to be underpaid to begin with, and therefore anything resembling a salary cap will not be discussed, let alone considered for implementation. On the other side, you have the owners, who claim that millions of dollars are being lost by nearly every franchise every year, so continuing the current economic structure could ultimately cripple the league. Thus, a salary cap is needed to keep the NHL alive, let alone turn a profit. Several NHL owners have stated on the record that they will lose less money if there is no NHL season than if there were to be one. THAT is a really bad sign!

And round and round we go. Where it stops … well, it may not stop.

For my own two cents, it would seem to me that the NHL is suffering from simple supply and demand issues. There are way too may teams and not enough hockey fans out there to watch the games, buy the tickets, and pay for merchandise to make this thing really profitable. When Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles what seemed like ages ago, the NHL underwent a boom that spread like wildfire to non-traditional hockey areas, and the NHL expanded and relocated to the point where 30% of the teams in the league play in areas where they were they could be the only hockey team in their state. Hockey in Florida (granted - Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup), Georgia, California, Tennessee, and North Carolina? And people wonder why this thing isn't making money!

If you eliminate, say, nine teams, and leave 20 to compete in four Conferences, you make the market more reasonable. You also make the talent less diluted, and make the sport more exciting. Anyway, enough hockey … what does this have to do with lacrosse? EVERYTHING!

Anybody who has ever frequented this column knows that I have never been much of a fan of the National Lacrosse League, but at the same time, if this league is ever really going to flourish, if it is ever really going to hit the big time, perhaps its only opportunity to do so is right this very minute. Without the NHL, the arenas are empty, the seats are vacant, and everybody from television producers and announcers to beer vendors to merchandise salespeople are aching for something to do, and a way to make money. While the NBA brings with it much fanfare, there is still a market the NHL has as its own, a market that needs something to fill the vacuum created by this lockout. The NLL could very easily be the sport and opportunity to step in and take itself to a whole new level.

NLL Commissioner at a crossroads: Jim Jennings

When you think about it, if the NLL does the right thing, it very easily become the NHL replacement and do very well. It's played on the same size surface as the NHL, and the object of the sport is fairly similar. The speed is comparable, and indoor lacrosse is about as intense and exciting as hockey. Should there be no NHL, if the NLL takes the time, energy, and money to market itself to the excitement starved hockey fan who has nothing to watch, it could find itself in a unique position where it is no longer the proverbial little engine that could of the professional sports world. The market is there, the facilities are there, now the opportunity has presented itself.

The bell is ringing, boys, are you going to answer?

Here's the rub. Nothing is etched in stone that the NLL season is going to start either. Yes, I said the NLL season. Remember, a year ago, the NLL went on strike for 12 days before Professional Lacrosse Players Association (PLPA) and league agreed to continue the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement for another season to allow the league to function for the 2003-04 season. As of this point, there is no long-term agreement in place for 2004-05, so for all we know, the NLL is headed for another strike. Um, Strike that strike, guys!

An NLL strike would be nothing short of a disaster. In fact, assuming the NHL lockout continues into the season, anything less than a complete sellout to gain action-starved NHL diehards to attend NLL games would be a disaster. This is the one, and perhaps only, opportunity for this league to really make a name for itself to an audience outside of lacrosse enthusiasts and indoor lacrosse junkies. This is the time for the NLL to gain the new fan-base it has sought, maybe even a television contract that rivals other professional organizations, and gain a fan-base that is going to allow this league to flourish.

Imagine the marketing plan … "Hockey fans … are you missing bone-crunching checks, unparalleled speed, and action that keeps you at the edge of your seat? Watch the National Lacrosse League on ESPN, where you'll never be locked out of the action!"

And, why not? What are ESPN and ABC going to show in lieu of the NHL? More dog shows? Expanded coverage of boxing? How about rerunning the Olympics? ESPN should start showing pro lacrosse some respect anyway if they want national viewership for the college coverage on their new 24 hour college sports network. How about local affiliates where NLL franchises are located? There are not many programming alternatives to satisfy the hockey demographic. The NLL is one of them and all but 1 NLL team, the Rochester Knighthawks, is owned by an NHL franchise so there should be a motive to show something while hockey is on hiatus.

Huge Crowds like this one in Denver would appeal to TV Audiences

And all of this is a pipe dream if either the NLL does not jump at this opportunity, or if the league goes on strike. This opportunity is not going to be there forever, and the possibility of the NLL taking advantage of it is not going to happen just because the NLL plays on top of a hockey ice. It is going to require effort, vision, and a united front by all sides - owners, players, and even the lacrosse community to lend its support. Even if it means that the prior CBA has to extend for one more year, the NLL should focus on the opportunity at hand and not petty labor squabbles that could lead to a disaster.

It is not time to deal with the status quo. The current NLL is a viable sports entity that has even begun to flourish in some markets, but imagine the possibilities if this league takes advantage of the NHL's issues. There is now a bona fide national market for the NLL to call its own as long as the NHL has locked out its players. But, there will (probably) be an NHL again and the opportunity will probably disappear. If the NLL is going to strike while the iron is hot, they have to do it now. They need to expand their efforts and put on a marketing blitz they never have before. They need to think big and act bigger … and they need to do it now.

The question is … will the players and owners put their differences aside and make it happen?

September 26, 2004

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