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The business of the NHL demonstrates a culture clash

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Market competition isn't a problem in Canada. The Canadian perception that capacity crowds are needed for every game, no matter how bad the team, or a market is a failure, is.

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Culture takes two very different tracks on two poorly run hockey organizations.
Culture takes two very different tracks on two poorly run hockey organizations.
Derek Leung

With consumerism, capitalism, a healthy market and all that, a business needs to offer a worthwhile product to draw in customers. It's also a necessity to have a good product in order to compete with market rivals to retain customers and market share. Some of the readers more versed in capitalism and economics might point out inaccuracies in what I just said, but I'm not so much here to discuss market theories and commercialism as much as address an unfair perception that's been perpetuated for quite a while in the NHL with thanks to a difference in societies and cultures that make up the National Hockey League.

There are 23 NHL teams in the United States. 17 of those teams are in markets that have more than two franchises in major North American pro-sports leagues (MLB, NBA, and the NFL being the other three besides the NHL). College sport and Major League Soccer aren't included in this discussion though those institutions are also part of the competition for the attention of the consumer-spectator complex (meaning: fans). Locally, Tampa Bay has competition going on between the Tampa Bay Lightning, Buccaneers and Rays (trying to draw investment in tickets and team-branded goods in a market with limited disposable income). There's a healthy relationship between the clubs on a social level, but they are indeed in competition with each other on a financial level and also other options in local entertainment.

This is generally how it is for American sports franchises - the competition. Hockey is just another pro sport, one where winning and success will drive investment by the fans. Even the sports that are more of a social institution in American society (baseball and football) are subject to having to earn fans financial investment; football games won't sell out if the teams are crappy, and you can't expect a capacity crowd for all 81 home games during the MLB season.

What sets hockey apart is unrealistic expectations that are born in Canada where hockey is more than a business, it's almost like religion (with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman perceived as the Interloper). Yes, there's competition in markets between franchises, but the National Lacrosse League and Canadian Football League aren't competing on the same level as hockey in Canada.

From Canada, by way of the national fervor of the sport, also comes the standard that attendance is mandatory: you go to games; you have to go to games if you have those means. If ticket sales wane, it's not a doubt on the market that's raised, it's (to continue use of the religious terminology) like a doubt on the faith in a denomination. Though they're fully allowed to continue to exist because of the nationalist perspective that hockey belongs to Canada.

The difference in countries, in societies for that matter, over perception and economics by way of the consumer-spectator complex, is very much on display in the 2014-15 season when you look at the Florida Panthers and the Edmonton Oilers. There really is no difference between these two teams that fail to succeed, except that one team has drawn the ire of hockey traditionalists because of low attendance on top of mediocrity and the other is just laughed at and mocked while fans throw jerseys on the ice at games out of frustration.

One team is in a healthy commercial market where they're failing by way of their long-time lackluster product (as well as the out-of-the-way location of their arena, but that's another story altogether). The other has what amounts to a monopoly in its market with thanks to the value of the sport in Canadian society. The idea that fans could stop showing up at game or stop buying tickets (and stop rewarding a continued horrific operation of the franchise) is akin to a cardinal sin.

With thanks to the difference in cultures, Edmonton fans will continue to turn out in large numbers for the Oilers despite continued disastrous results.  At current state, the club has sold out every game this season (100% arena capacity). By comparison, south Florida residents turning up their nose for a perpetually weak product is seen elsewhere in hockey as proof that the market is not a valid host for the sport. The Panthers are dead-last in attendance this season as of this writing, filling 62.8% of the building on average.

The Panthers franchise has changed owners who have had different ideas of what to do with BB&T Center along with what to do with the team itself. Success hasn't been found though. The idea of moving the team to cure its attendance ills misses the forest for the trees - a team being properly run is not going to become a well run team just because it changes markets.  The Winnipeg Jets have largely been proof of that up until this season; a franchise that remains largely unchanged with players and front office personnel since it packed up and moved from Atlanta to the province of Manitoba.

The changes in the Oilers organization have been negligible when it comes to management - Kevin Lowe reigns supreme with hockey operations while Daryl Katz owns the club. The GM job is a puppet for Lowe while former players are often rewarded with positions with the team or in the front office. Being an Oiler matters more than being competent, even when the only constant for the franchise in almost a decade is obtaining a high draft pick after another porous season.

Edmonton is an unhealthy market by way of the fact fans still invest in that team. It's the financial stuff that makes teams pay attention to what works and what doesn't. It's meaningless how much fans protest Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, coaching or any singular player on the Oilers roster. The problem is they - the fans who love that team -- have nothing better to do than to still buy Oilers gear or make a trip to Rexall Place for an Oilers game.

Relocation for Edmonton wouldn't change anything; NHL fans and the media can easily grasp the logic that it'd be an atrocity to do such; the problems aren't attendance related but management and organizational related. Those same fans and media entities won't afford the Florida Panthers the same luxury by way of the culture difference that creates a clear hypocrisy; as long as the incompetence and poor decision making takes place in Canada, everything is fine. If it happens in a non-traditional market, and the market reacts by not attending games, then the franchise needs to move because the market has failed.

It hasn't failed. It simply will not reward a business that isn't putting out a good product. That's how a business market is supposed to work. The fact the Panthers are putting out an inconsistent and mediocre product and asking for a large government handout is what will ultimately make or break hockey in south Florida. Why further support an entity creating an underwhelming product?

What has been going on in Edmonton, where the same thing has been done over and over again (faithfully) for so long with people expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity. The Oilers, a profitable franchise, were able to sway the local government into funding a new arena despite the fact the product is unsound at best in recent years. This isn't new in pro-sports though, and an analysis field has come up based off it.

In the end though, what truly any pro team necessitates in any location is solvency or the ability to make ends meet, and attendance does matter when trying to achieve that (as do corporate sponsorship, broadcast ratings, ad revenue  and a number of other factors). The falling value of the Canadian dollar very well could put Canadian teams in an at-risk position far beyond in-market competition and regardless of blind faith shown by the fans.