Gary Bettman's penchant for attempting to grow the game of hockey in the United States has been well documented and hotly contested over the past few years. Whether it's the constant state of disaster of the Phoenix Coyotes, the fact that California and Florida play host no less than 5 NHL teams (just two less than here in Canada), or that the Winnipeg Jets sold out their season tickets in 17 minutes, there are plenty of reasons to think teams should be brought back to Canada.
Now, I should mention that I'm all for bringing more teams to Canada - I'd love to see the Nordiques come back. And though I'm a Sens fan through and through, let's be honest here, having only one team in Toronto makes no sense.
In fact, there are many who think the NHL should scrap their seemingly failed attempt at growing the game in non-traditional markets and move some of those teams to Canada. Many fans even loathe Bettman for his apparent stubbornness in blocking struggling U.S. teams (like Pittsburgh or Phoenix) from being purchased and moved to Canada by very wealthy owners.
However is Gary Bettman really wrong in trying to develop the sport in the U.S.? Obviously the market potential is huge. Despite what we see now -- the empty seats and subsequent potential for bankruptcy -- is the strategy really that bad? I'll ask it another way: is the strategy really that illogical? The answer is no. Any successful product, company, or celebrity originating in Canada pushes into the U.S. market for a chance to really make it big. Whether we're talking about Blackberries or Justin Bieber the strategy works, plain and simple.
In retrospect (and speaking of Blackberries), was Bettman's decision to block the sale and movement of the Pittsburgh Penguins such a bad move? In 2006, the team was struggling both on and off the ice when Jim Balsillie offered to purchase the Penguins and was expected to move them to Hamilton. If Bettman allowed the deal, he would have robbed the city of their Stanley Cup win in 2009 and lost quite a strong fan base in a major American city. Yet at the time many were calling Bettman insane for not wanting to capitalize on the strong Canadian market.
So in these respects I have to say Bettman has made some gutsy moves and shown quite a bit of foresight. Maybe he sees something in Phoenix, Florida or Southern California that the rest of us don't. Maybe he's actually smarter than many fans give him credit for. I have not been a Bettman fan, but I recently discovered something which forced me to take a complete 180 degree turn on my view of his strategy for the game.
It started with reading Elliotte Friedman's recent "30 Thoughts" article. In number 14, he mentions (and I'm paraphrasing here) that one league executive was worried that the lockout would cause potential young athletes from unconventional hockey markets in the U.S. to lose interest in the sport. He or she thought we would lose the next Seth Jones for example.
At first I agreed. The lockout would kill the struggling sport in the U.S. where no one seems to care much for it. I have friends in the U.S. who don't even hear about the big news (like the Americans winning gold at the World Juniors for example), let alone follow hockey regularly. I thought Bettman made a terrible mistake allowing this lockout to happen given his desire to gain the U.S. market. Then I did some digging.
From the 2002-2003 season to the 2010-2011 season, the number of American born players in the NHL grew 67% (94 more players). In that same time the number of Canadian born players grew just 7%, or 33 players. Based on this growth, Americans have already or are clearly starting to take a liking to the game. In other words: Bettman's strategy is working. The growth in U.S. numbers is staggering when compared to Canada and other major hockey nations (all under 10% growth, most negative).
In fact, if we look at the numbers yearly, it's even more astounding. The number and percent of American born players in the NHL is steadily rising each year. In 2002-2003, Americans made up just 14% of the NHL, and in 2010-2011 that number was 24%. By comparison Canada remained relatively flat, but saw a slight rise overall from 50% to 53%. Even despite a lockout in 2004-2005, the number of American born players in the NHL continued to steadily increase over almost a decade. I should note the only reason I looked at 2002-2011 was because there was a nice chart in Wikipedia already built to pull the numbers from.
This is why Bettman was comfortable with a lockout this year. This is why Bettman fights tooth-and-nail to keep teams in non-conventional markets. The popularity of the game is growing in the U.S. and it is starting to take effect in the makeup of the league. With more American born players becoming stars in the NHL and on U.S. based teams it will undoubtedly build the game in those cities. It will also ensure the next generation of fans have exposure to the game. It is not a short process to build a fan base for a team. Those of us who are Sens fans can appreciate that - go to any Sens-Leafs or Sens-Habs game and you will see the effect the length of time a team has been in the city can have on a fan base.
Ensuring more and more Americans gain exposure to, and begin playing hockey has got to be an integral part of Bettman's strategy to bring the game we live for here in Canada to relevance in the U.S. In order to really grow the popularity of the game, you have to get people not only to watch the game, but to play and live the game. Let me ask you: how many of you are hockey fans and have never once picked up a hockey stick, skated on ice/roller blades, or simply seen others (not on TV) playing the game? I bet not many.
As Canadians, hockey makes its way into many aspects of our lives; that is why we follow it the way we do. The more you have had exposure to the game itself, the more likely you, and those around you, will become fans of the game. Simply gaining television rights is not enough to build the game - there are hundreds of channels and shows that are only watched by a small few with only a handful truly gaining popularity. You must have the team in the city for a long period of time to gain the sort of following you need to grow the sport.
Bettman's strategy for the U.S. is nothing new. However he is executing that strategy quite successfully despite some calling for him to be fired for his stubbornness. It may take time to see it, but it is happening.
How long until the number of U.S. born players rival that of Canada?
PS - is there a way to post charts and graphs? Would be a much better post with visual aids..