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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Red Rising: The Chicago Blackhawks End the Bill Wirtz Era, is the NHL better off because of It?

There was a great article in the Chicago Tribune a few days ago profiling the nice job Rocky Wirtz has done turning the Blackhawks around. It talks about the moves he made bringing in marketing guru John McDonough from the Cubs, healing old wounds with former Blackhawks legends and finally getting the teams home games on TV! Surprisingly, he has turned into a bit of a celebrity around Chicago, as crowds at the games often "want his autograph." The article also mentions one of the last interviews done by the late Bill Wirtz, where he revealed that the Hawks had lost "$191 million in the last decade" including a remarkable "$31 million in 2006-07." Rocky apparently doesn't dispute the figures. Those figures are amazing for any sports franchise, but the !!! Whose ever heard of a big league team in one of the big three media markets (NY, LA, CHICAGO) losing that kind of money? Not to rehash old wounds, but the most amazing thing is that nothing was done. The team policies which obviously were not working were not changed. The article shed some light on that when Rocky acknowledged that "as an organization, we carried grudges, and that doesn't help anyone."

One of the greatest ironies is that if this painful past had not existed for the Blackhawks, the League likely would have been far worse off. The biggest reason why the NHL is not considered by some, to be on par with the other major North American sports leagues, is because of the lack of a major national TV deal in the US. Had Bill Wirtz, (or Philip Anschutz for that matter) decided during those pre-lockout days, to spend as much money as was necessary to compete for the Stanley Cup (spending it somewhat wisely of course, not like the NY Rangers) the NHL's television picture would be far different. One of the major reasons why the NHL is in the bind it is in today with respect to television, is because of the lack of participation of major market US teams (particularly NY Rangers, LA Kings and the ) in the Stanley Cup Finals. TV ratings get a tremendous lift from having teams from those markets involved. A major reason, in fact THE major reason the NBA was able to climb out of irrelevancy, and become arguably the most popular sports league in the world, was because the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks were involved in 17 NBA Finals from 1981-2002 (as opposed to 13 Finals from 1946-1981). However, in the NHL, unlike in every other major sport, Wirtz and many of his fellow big market owners decided to hold the line on player spending. While admirable from a business standpoint, it alienated the team and owner from their fans. A bunch of mid-market teams ended up outspending the big market clubs, eventually rising to dominate the league. Colorado (Denver population: 2.4 million), Detroit (Metro Population: 4.4 million) , New Jersey (East Rutherford population: 8931, yes 8931!) and Dallas (metro population: 6 million) were the largest markets to play in the Stanley Cup Finals from 1999-2003. Those populations were a far cry from the 9.5-18.7 million people in the Big Three markets. The most recent Stanley Cup Finals shows the abysmal tv ratings in major markets due to the lack of participation of their teams. US TV ratings, which had been climbing since the Kings and Rangers made back to back appearances in the Finals in 93 and 94, started to slide. Had the Blackhawks been involved in more Finals the ratings would have vastly improved. I'm not saying they would've been at the same level as the NBA Finals or the World Series, but they would've been close.

Then the NHL would've gotten its big network TV deal. If average team payroll spending continued to be 75% of revenues, its still pretty likely the NHL would've had to go through the lockout. But, if like baseball, they were able to curb spending a little, and distribute some revenues to lower revenue teams, then they might've been able to avoid it. There might've been no salary cap, or at least maybe not a hard one. The question is, would the league have been better off? Under that type of a system, the playing field is still skewed towards bigger market teams. Dynasties can be maintained, and it would take a little while to build towards the top. Some Canadian franchises still might not have survived in that type of league. From a business perspective, that type of league may have brought in more money, but from a fan perspective would it be better if you knew your local team had less of a shot at winning it all? Or would you have cared? Since you might get to see the Rangers, Kings or Blackhawks in the Finals every year. Was the Hawks sacrifice worth it?

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