The news of the KHL gaining permission to put a team in London is not a new one. It was announced this past summer. However, after living in the capital of the United Kingdom for roughly nine months now, its clear it was ripe for the picking with zero competition from the NHL. However, I’m not suggesting the NHL expand across the pond anytime soon.
The UK is not opposed to ice hockey. The Elite Ice Hockey League is doing pretty well, which I think has a lot to do with their strategy. The Cardiff Devils even got a brand new rink recently, but you can read more about that experience on one of my old posts. They went with smaller arenas, which are cheaper to operate and easier to fill. One of the better side effects is the tremendous atmosphere this creates. Although, it still hasn’t made the country ripe, nor does it make sense for an NHL franchise in London
However, that doesn’t mean the NHL should have ignored London, or the rest of Europe for that matter. There was a time they embraced it, and for many years. It started with exhibition games, transitioned to preseason games against one another, into exhibitions with local teams, and then NHL regular season games. Then, after the 2011-2012 season, they just stopped.
Why, I have no idea. Its not like they were encroaching on KHL territory most of the time as where the games were held (Berlin, London, Helsinki, Prague, Stockholm) didn’t have KHL franchises at that time, or have never had one. The games did well attendance-wise, as I have come to learn with the NFL, the Europeans (especially the Brits) love a novelty sport.
I think these games were critical to expanding the game. I think the NBA has showed with its successes in Asia, that you don’t need a franchise somewhere to expand your fan base. I was at Wembley for the Colts and Jaguars game a few weeks ago and I saw every NFL franchise accounted for, even the Browns. THE CLEVELAND BROWNS HAVE FANS IN THE UK! I also heard very few American accents. The point being, the NHL would have a lot more fans in the UK if they were a bit smarter about it.
BRING BACK THE GAMES
First, bring back the games! That is the corner stone of expanding your fan base, bring the action to them. At the Cardiff Devils game I saw so many NHL jerseys, meaning even without games in Cardiff, they’ve attracted fans. I thought the idea of playing exhibition games against other European teams was genius.
First you get the Euro teams to play their asses off to impress the NHL teams. Second the NHL team gets exposure to a whole new fan base, that is clearly into hockey. The third benefit is even though the NHL team is playing their team, they will buy your apparel because you’re not a rival. So unless you have a Deon Phaneuf out there hacking people, you walk away with new fans. They won’t even care if you bring half your AHL team.
PUT IT ON TV, IN PUBS
One of the most frustrating things living in London is not being able to watch North American sports. Even when you Google the games, sites/apps like MatchPint will say they are showing them, but they’re not. Any pub that has shown baseball, American football, the NBA or hockey at anytime gets lumped in. Then you show up to realise they don’t have it. Its extremely frustrating.
The key with the pubs is, that’s how they consume sports over here. Now I am sure the small, hardcore NHL fans in the UK watch on NHL TV, in the middle of the night. I myself try to avoid Twitter and Facebook and get up early. However, even on tape delay, if they had designated NHL bars, not exclusive, but would show games, it would go a long way. Do giveaways, free beers, any number of methods would work, and for an organisation like the NHL it would be cheap.
People love drinking here, its their pastime. Football matches are on TV Saturday and Sunday, with an occasional Monday and an even rarer Friday. Some teams play throughout the week for a Cup game (which is largely ignored) or a Champions League matchup (better viewership).That leaves every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night open for people looking for an excuse to go to the pub. You don’t need to compete with the EPL, just work around it.
PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE
The Brits love rough and tough sports. They’re nuts for rugby, which is about as rough as it gets. They also appreciate sportsmanship. Out of the four major North American sports, which one does that sound like the most? You have guys who fight and then shake hands after. That is the most British thing I have ever heard of, which makes sense looking at the history of the regions. But I digress.
They need to promote the sport as a rough game, but one full of things British people love: History, Sportsmanship, and Athleticism. Hockey ticks those boxes across the board. Don’t just bring the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens over here for a game or tour, but explain why they are rivals, and their marquee players and moments. Even though he is French-Canadian, not one Brit would scoff at the story of Maurice Richard.
It just drives me nuts they abandoned a good thing. If the league thinks “expanding” is putting yet another team in the desert, full of transplants from other places, with teams, they’re insane. I have a good friend in Vegas, who is a diehard Red Wings fan. Take a guess as to which game(s) he’ll be attending when the new team starts play? Gary Bettman wants to turn the NHL into the NBA, yet ignores them when it comes to expanding their fan base.