Monday, January 31, 2005

The ice is melting

I was disheartened recently to read that the Cleveland Barons, the American Hockey League team in town, may be considering a move to greener pastures -- namely, the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.
Hockey's got to be in trouble when Davenport, Iowa holds more promise than a metropolitan area of nearly three million people with a 20,000-seat downtown arena to play in.
To tell you the truth, I can't tell whether this is a bigger indictment of hockey or hockey in Cleveland. Yes, the NHL is mired in a lockout that could kill the entire 2004-05 season, and sustained long enough, could permanently alter the professional face of the sport. Minor league hockey can't help but be affected by that. If the big boys aren't playing on ESPN, most casual fans probably aren't going to get too pumped about the bus leagues.
In Cleveland, that is especially the case. Say what you will about rivers catching on fire and a steel industry that has been dead and/or comatose for much of the past 30 years, but Cleveland is a major league town. We have NFL football, NBA basketball and Major League Baseball. Any minor league franchise is fighting an uphill battle against our big three.
The Barons currently rank 22 out of 28 AHL teams in attendance, averaging less than 5,000 fans per game. Team officials have gone on record saying the Barons are bleeding money and have been for quite some time.
The Barons, quite simply, just aren't capturing the imagination, and by extension the pocketbooks, of Cleveland fans.
Greater Cleveland is a great grass-roots hockey area, boasting one of the best hockey rink-to-population ratios in the country. But if this edition of the Barons fails, it will be the fifth hockey franchise to move or fold in Cleveland's history.
The original Barons, the ones that made a legacy in Cleveland, moved in 1973. The Crusaders were swallowed up when the World Hockey League was absorbed by the NHL in 1976. The NHL Barons (yes, Cleveland briefly was an NHL city), lasted only two red-inked seasons before being merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978.
The International Hockey League's Lumberjacks lasted almost 10 years in town. Armed with a promotional cache of loopy sideshows and heavily-hyped giveaways, they drew good crowds to Gund Arena until poor management killed the team, and shortly thereafter, the league.
The $64,000 question is, how can a city with an extensive hockey history, and a well-rooted amateur scene, be such a wasteland for the professional game?
Part of it is Cleveland, and part of it is hockey.
I think hockey is a lot like golf to many people: enjoyable to play, but tedious to watch. The nonstop movement makes some seasick when viewing on television. The small, black puck is work to follow. The breaks in action and constant face-offs also seem to frustrate viewers, though football is every bit as spastic.
Hockey isn't basketball with slam dunks. It isn't baseball with home runs. People aren't innately attracted to sheer feats of athleticism like with other sports. The greatness of hockey, like the passing of Wayne Gretzky or the skating of Bobby Orr, is more nuanced. People that appreciate hockey were most likely brought up watching it.
And for the NHL and all the leagues below it, that is less and less the case.
The NHL can take a lesson from Cleveland and other cold-weather towns where hockey continually fails. Professional hockey is not doing a good enough job of building a widespread, loyal fan base of people who can relate to the sport. It has withdrawn resources from cold-weather hockey enclaves to go for the sun and fun of the South.
After Gretzky, hockey thought it was hip and happening. It moved to Miami, to Tampa Bay, to Phoenix and Anaheim and several other places where it only snows in "The Day After Tomorrow." The NHL wanted glamour. It wanted sizzle and suntans. But in doing so, in turning a blind eye to its chilly roots, hockey overstepped its bounds.
The lesson is simple, and hopefully not too late to learn: if hockey has trouble being relevant enough to survive in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Winnipeg, how can it survive in Miami, Phoenix and Atlanta? In the long run, it probably can't.

No comments: