Monday, May 21, 2007

Ideas from across the pond

It seems I have been misplaced geographically. I live in a nation obsessed with ice hockey,a sport for which I have no particular affinity. I am a most avid fan of two sports somewhat foreign to North Americans, association football (soccer, a term which originates from a bastardized form of the word association) and rugby football. Funny enough, I extremely dislike American football. I digress. The only time of the year that I have any interest in hockey is playoff time. And this is where my story begins. At the beginning of every Stanley Cup run I analyze the stats from the regular season and, due to my entire lack of sporting intuition, I attempt to develop some sort of statistical algorithm that will allow me to predict the outcome of each series. I have been heretofore unsuccessful. This year, however, I am now 11 for 13, an 85% success rate. Not bad for a stats nerd. Anywho, given this newfound confidence in my sports knowledge, I feel entitled to provide the NHL with some tips for improvement based on ideas I have taken from my two favorite sports, rugby and soccer.

1. Relegation and Promotion

This system is in place in most major rugby and soccer competitions in Europe and elsewhere. Essentially, there are multiple levels of competition within each league. So, for example, in English soccer, there is the English Premier League, the top level of football in England. Below that is the League Championship. Every year, at the end of the competition, the three bottom placed teams in the EPL are relegated to the League Championship. The top 3 teams from the Championship are promoted to the EPL. This continues year after year. So, whereas in the NHL placing dead last has some benefits (top draft pick), placing in the lower ranks of these leagues means being relegated to a less prestigious competition that leads to lower TV ratings, lower fan turnouts, and inability to compete in the major continental competitions. If that sort of financial and emotional punishment were a risk in the NHL, the competition would improve. Maybe you could have the AHL be the lower tier league, or any member of the CHL (WHL, OHL, QMJHL). Now that would be interesting.

2. Bonus Points

This system is in place in the Super 14 rugby union competition between clubs in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Essentially, the way it would work in the NHL is if teams scored more than, say, 4 goals, they would obtain 1 bonus point that would count toward their point total in the league table. You could also award a bonus point for a shutout, thus equally rewarding stellar defense AND stellar offense. Also, if the league wanted to crack down on penalties, they could award bonus points for a certain threshold of penalty minutes, etc., etc.

3. McIntyre Playoff System

This is in place in the National Rugby League in Australia that creates the NRL Grand Final, one of the most highly attended sporting events in the world. It creates fierce competition in the elimination playoffs while rewarding the hard work done over the long season, something that is often missing in the NHL. A team can work hard over 82 games to achieve top-standing in the conference, only to be wiped out in the first round. Here is how it would work, using the example of the current years standings from the Western Conference:

Round 1: Detroit vs. Calgary, Anaheim v. Minnesota, Vancouver v. Dallas, Nashville v. San Jose

As we all know, Detroit, Anaheim, Vancouver, & San Jose all went through. However, shouldn’t Nashville & Dallas’s hard work pay off at all? In the McIntyre system the next round would look as such.

Round 2: San Jose v. Dallas, Vancouver v. Nashville; Detroit and Anaheim get a by to the next round because they placed so high during the regular season, and Dallas and Nashville get a second chance because of their highest ranking among losing teams from the first round.

Round 3: Anaheim v. Winner of Van/Nash (probably NSH) and Detroit v. winner of San Jose/Dallas, probably San Jose.

Round 4: likely Anaheim/Detroit but, still, at least there was some more excitement.

Now, this system would add one extra round in the playoffs, but you could solve this by making the first round best of 5 instead of best of 7. Hockey drags on too long anyways.

4. Club Competitions

This is genius. In European rugby, for example, there are numerous union competitions. There is the Celtic League, known as the Magners League, competed by clubs in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. The Guinness Premiership is in England, the Top 14 in France, and the Super 10 in Italy. Yeah you can win the Premiership and think you’re all that but how do you know if you could beat the top team in the Top 14? Along comes the Heineken Cup. Top placed teams from each season go on the next season to compete in the Heineken Cup, a competition that goes on alongside their other league games. So, theoretically, your team could win the Premiership one year and be the best team in England, and also win the Heineken Cup that year and be the best team in Europe. How would that feel? Why not have the boys in the NHL compete against club teams from Sweden, Norway, Czech Republic, etc.? Yeah, the Canadian men can beat the pants off any other team but can the Ottawa Senators (made up of players of multiple nationalities) defeat the Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the top ranked team in the Russian Super League, the second ranked professional hockey league in the world? Put your cards on the table and test your mettle.

Now, why should the NHL take seriously ideas from some non-North American sports like rugby and soccer? Well, they may not be popular in North America, but that is pretty much the only place. As we all know, the FIFA World Cup of soccer is the most watched sporting competition in the world. 26 billion people watched the 2006 version in Germany. A billion people alone watched the final. That is 1/6 the world’s population. The Rugby World Cup is the 3rd most watched event, after the Olympics. Furthermore, the attendance records for major finals in soccer and rugby annihilate those of the Stanley Cup Final. Average attendance at NHL games runs at 16 500. Average attendance at Super 14 rugby is 24 017. The UEFA Champions League, a soccer competition, gets almost 40 000 people per game. English Premier League brings in an average of 35 000 people. Even the NRL, the National Rugby League in Australia, brings in 17 500 per game. Most important are the Australian figures (Super 14 and NRL). Australia only has 20 million people. Canada has 30 million and the US 300 million for a total market of 330 million people. So 1:20 000 for the NHL, 1:832 and 1:1142 for the Super 14 and NRL respectively. For a sport in the states to have similar fan following to the Super 14 in Australia, the average attendance would have to be 360 000. Something is obviously lacking!

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