North America

 If I was commissioner of the NHL… (Three ways to make the game better, and make lots of $$$)

 

  1. Overtime

    First off, some reasons why the current regular-season overtime structure arguably should be changed:

  • Shootouts are anti-climactic after the excitement of the 3rd period and 3-on-3 OT
  • Shootouts are a silly “skills-competition” way of determining a winning team
  • It seems wrong to give half as many points for losing the game (in OT) as for a win
  • Relying on shootouts too much is a waste of a good opportunity: if they were rarer, they would be very exciting. Similarly, too many shootouts even makes penalty shots less exciting – a shame, since a penalty shot used to be a highly exciting event in a game

Here’s what I would do. Instead of going to a shootout, the home team’s coach would be given a choice: end the game in a tie, end the game in a shootout, or play a second 5 minute, 3-on-3 OT. If a tie, both teams get 1 point. But losing teams in OT or shootouts get no points. If the second OT ends scoreless, the same choice would then be given to the away team’s coach; and so on, ad infinitum*.

(*If you are afraid that the coaches are too timid to make their decision happily in the face of thousands of people in the crowd chanting “more OT, more OT”, then you could have the coaches make their choices earlier instead, in private – perhaps before the start of the game even. But much more fun would be to have the coach to decide in real time. It could be like a Roman emperor giving the thumbs up or down to determine a gladiator’s fate in the Coliseum. Thumbs up would mean another OT, thumbs down would mean a shootout, thumb to the side would be a tie. …If you are still worried about too much OT, you could tweak things further. You could make it so the coaches have to be unanimous in their choice – resulting in a tie if they do not both agree to another OT or shootout. Or you could make any OT after the first OT only 2-3 minutes, instead of 5…).

  1. All-Star Weekend

The all-star weekend should be the most exciting part of the regular season, but instead it is the least exciting. Here’s how to fix it: you have all the NHL teams compete in a 1-game elimination, March Madness-style tournament, where the winning team gets 10 points in the regular season standings. On the final day of the tournament, you have two games played: the tournament Finals in the evening, and the All-Star Game in the afternoon. Any all-star players on teams participating in the Finals game would simply not participate in the All-Star Game. Plus, to spice things up even more, you would have the All-Star Game be Team Europe versus Team (North) America.

Here’s how the tournament could work. On Thursday evening, you would have one player from all 31 NHL teams compete in a last-man-standing shootout competition, with the winner’s team getting a bye in the first round of the tournament, and the results of the shootout in general determining the shape of the tournament bracket. (Ordering the tournament bracket by regular season standings would not be fair, since some teams’ regular season schedules at this point will have been much easier than others’). This will only be necessary until the league expands to 32 teams.

On Friday you would have the opening round, in which each team would play one 20-minute period of 4-on-4 hockey, followed by a 20 minute, first-goal wins 3-on-3 OT period, followed by a shootout.

Since there will be 15 games in total in the opening day, each one running between about 20 minutes and an hour (with intermissions) in length, it would be possible to host the tournament using only two venues. It should be co-hosted by two neighbouring cities—one city will get the Finals, the other will get the All-Star Game.

On Saturday, you have the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8, with the same rules as the opening round. On Sunday, you have the Final Four, again with the same rules. At the end of the Final Four, the two teams going in to the Finals will have each played between 60-160 minutes (likely, closer to 100 minutes) over 3 days. And they will only have played 20-40 minutes (likely, closer to 20) on the day before the Finals, so they will be well rested.

Finally, on Monday (of a holiday weekend) you have the Finals and the All-Star Game, each of which will be played like a playoff game: three 5-on-5 regulation periods, then continuous 5-on-5 OTs.

One more thing: at the Finals, all of the all-stars would sit together, watching the game live at the arena in the “All-Star Box”.

I think this would be great – a hell of a lot of fun, a great treat for fans and a way of attracting new fans, and a way to see some more 4-on-4 hockey again (which was always high-quality). One-game elimination tournaments, whether it is the NFL playoffs or NCAA March Madness, are the most successful events in the sports world. And it would not take away any of the prestige of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Rather it could be an ideal pre-shadowing of and advertisement for the playoffs.

 

  1. Expansion

We know that the three largest untapped hockey markets by far are Toronto, Southwest Ontario (and its neighbouring cities in Michigan, northern Ohio, upstate NY, and upstate Pennsylvania), and Europe. The problem, of course, is that Toronto already has a team, Southwest Ontario does not have any cities with populations and arenas large enough to support a team, and Europe is in Europe.

There might be some ways around all of these problems, if we are willing to get creative:

The London Knights, a team split 75-25 between Canada’s 10th largest city, London (population 475,000) and Europe’s largest city, London (population 13.5 million). It would play at least some of its playoff games in a location accessible to Londoners and Londoners: the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Of course, the obvious problem comes up: while London, England already has arenas that could be suitable to host a dozen or so NHL games per year, and while the ACC could handle at least some playoff games (the Staples Centre in LA, after all, hosts playoff games for the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings), and while London, Ontario is in some ways the best-located city in the country (it is 100-200 km from urban areas like Toronto-Hamilton, Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-St Catharines, and Cleveland-Erie; it is relatively warm and sunny in the winter; and it does not border a Great Lake or ocean, so it has room for future growth in all directions), London, Ontario does not have an NHL arena. It also does not have a population large enough to justify building a typical NHL arena – particularly not an arena that would only be used for a few dozen games per year.
The question is, then, is there an atypical NHL arena that London could build instead?

Here’s one crazy idea: “The Tower of London”

For London to build a worthwhile arena, it must be able to get a good use of the arena for close to 365 days per year, instead of only a few dozen evenings per year. The only way that seems possible to me is if the arena were to double as conventional real estate: in other words, it should consist mostly of boxes, which can double as offices/hotel rooms/restaurants/co-working spaces/ etc. (The hotel room aspect could be especially useful if fans from other cities in Ontario, or even from London, England, wanted to visit London and catch a game while in town). The arena could have a lower bowl of normal seats, but then instead of any upper bowls, it could be a “tower” of boxes. If it were 100 metres tall (the height of the Skydome), and had a lower bowl that could sit 10,000 people (the same as the lower bowl of the ACC holds), the arena as a whole could then seat 20,000, though ½ of the fans would be in boxes (and many of them would be quite high up). And because the lower bowl seats would probably sell out, the arena would never look empty on TV–like, for example, the Ottawa Senators’ arena looked empty during last year’s playoff run.

So, those are three things I would try to do, if I was king commissioner. What would you do?

Advertisements
Standard
North America

Robots and NHL Expansion

Winnipeg and Las Vegas, the two newest NHL franchises since Minnesota and Columbus joined the league in 2000, have one thing in common: nobody lives near them. Apart from much larger, regional capitals, like New York City or Phoenix, both Winnipeg and Las Vegas account for a far bigger share of their state or province’s total population than do any of the other cities with NHL teams.

expansion2.png

In other words, both Winnipeg and Las Vegas are located pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

In spite of this, Winnipeg and Vegas represent opposing strategies to adding new teams to the NHL. Returning a team to Winnipeg was an example of what we will call a short-distance strategy. It was (to state the obvious) intended to capitalize on hockey fans, a.k.a. Canadians, who live in Winnipeg. As Winnipeg had been the largest Canadian city without a team, and Manitoba the largest province without a team, bringing the Jets back was an obvious decision for the NHL to make.

The league does not, however, expect many people at Jets games to have come from afar. Even outside of Winnipeg’s metro area, most Manitobans live not far from the city. Winnipeg’s neighbours, moreover, are distant andd sparsely populated. Saskatchewan has just 1.1 million people; its largest city, Saskatoon, is 710 km away from Winnipeg. Calgary and Edmonton are 1200 km from Winnipeg. Fargo is 330 km to Winnipeg’s south, Minneapolis 615 km. And almost nobody lives in northwestern Ontario. Toronto and Ottawa are more than 1700 km away. Manitoba cannot rely much on its neighbours to buy hockey tickets.

Las Vegas is following the opposite strategy: a long-distance strategy. It hopes to attract fans (aka gamblers, tourists) from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away: from Canada, the rest of the United States, and even overseas.

Even the Vegas locals, who the NHL hopes to convert into hockey fans, are dependent on long-distance tourism. Without tourism, Las Vegas’ economy would dry up and force many of the locals to leave (or at least, to spend less money on hockey tickets). This the Las Vegas Golden Knights would not be able to afford. Once the Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2019, Nevada will have the smallest population per each of its major sports franchises of any state or province—with only one exception: Manitoba.

expansion.png

Pittsburgh and Nashville  

This year’s Stanley Cup contenders, Pittsburgh and Nashville, are very different than Winnipeg and Vegas. For one thing, neither are the largest cities in their states. The Greater Nashville metro area is home to only an estimated 27 percent of the population of Tennessee; Pittsburgh’s metro area is home to just 13 percent of Pennsylvania’s population. Pittsburgh was fifth from the bottom on both of the blue graphs above.

Nashville's Nearest Neighbours.png

The Nashville Predators, and its nearest fellow teams in every direction—plus the Thrashers, which left Atlanta to become the Jets in 2011. 

For Nashville, not only are the Predators the only team in Tennessee, they are also surrounded by five states with no NHL teams: Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Kentucky. Tens of millions of people live within a few hundred km of Nashville, and none of them have their own teams.

Pennsylvania Teams.png

Pittsburgh too is in a region with a large population yet relatively few hockey teams—albeit not nearly to the same extent as Nashville. This region includes Ohio, which has no team north of Columbus, and the Virginias, which have no teams at all. Most importantly, it includes part of southwestern Ontario. Pittsburgh is located closer to the Canadian border than any other American team apart from Buffalo or Detroit.

Pennsylvania is also one of just two states that has exactly two NHL teams. (The other, Florida, relies on tourists and snowbirds, like Las Vegas will). This is a useful arrangement, creating an intrastate rivlary in which western Pennsylvania can cheer for the Penguins and the east for the Flyers.

Golden Knights or Goldilocks? 

Pittsburgh and Nashville are both examples of a medium-distance strategy for NHL expansion. Whereas Vegas will rely on fans jetting in from thousands of km away, and Winnipeg relies on Manitobans keeping the seats full, the Predators and Penguins can both — in theory, at least — attract fans or ticket-buyers who live within tens or hundreds of km of their arenas.

The question is however: which strategy is best?

The reason I bring this up is, as the title of this article indicated, robots. If Sillicon Valley is right, and technologies like autonomous cars really are coming just around the corner, might this make a medium-distance strategy wiser? Would it make the recent expansions to Winnipeg or Las Vegas ill-advised? After all, an autonomous vehicle could make driving tens or even hundreds of km to come home from a game—at night, in the winter, on a rural highway, after having drunk a beer or two earlier—safe and easy. This might increase dramatically the distance that fans are prepared to travel to go to a game.

A medium-distance strategy for future NHL expansion should, in general, prioritize cities that are in Canada or near the Canadian border. Such a team would allow Canadian hockey fans could come to games without having to travel too far a distance. Such cities might include Quebec City, Hamilton, Cleveland, Seattle, Milwaukee, or perhaps even Halifax, Saskatoon, London (in Ontario), Portland, or Toledo.

Most of these cities could not support a team without some new major advance in transportation technology, such as autonomous cars: the number of hockey fans who live in them is simply too small. Some may not be able to support a team even with robot cars. Halifax, for example, has a mere 400,000 inhabitants. It would need to draw in many fans from other Maritime cities to become viable.

While Quebec City and Hamilton are arguably the most sensible additions the NHL could make if following a medium-distance strategy, Seattle is I think the most intriguing one. Seattle is of course a sizeable city in its own right; it accounts for 50 percent (by metro area) and 9 percent (by municipality) of Washington’ population—middle-of-the-pack figures for cities that have NHL teams. Yet Washington as a state has only two major sports franchises (the Seattle Seahawaks and Seattle Mariners) for 7.2 million people. Along with neighbouring Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest has only four teams (Seahawks, Mariners, Trailblaizers, and Canucks) for 17.5 million people. It used to have six, but the Supersonics and Grizzlies moved away.

quebec expansion

One reason the Pacific Northwest has so few sports teams per capita is its mountainous terrain. The mountains make land expensive, raising the cost of an arena. They also make driving tricky and limit the number of highways available, creating traffic. This makes it difficult for fans from other cities to drive to and from Seattle, Portland, or Vancouver to take in a game. For a Seattle NHL team this would be an especially important challenge, as the team would want hockey fans to visit from Canada. It is 236 km from Vancouver to Seattle, and 278 from Portland to Seattle. It is just 115 km from Victoria, BC’s capital city (with a population of 368,000), but only as the crow flies.

Pacific Northwest .png

Autonomous cars could, perhaps, help the Pacific Northwest overcome these challenges. They might do so by allowing an arena to be built further from Seattle’s expensive downtown core, or by allowing an arena to have much smaller parking lots (and therefore to occupy less expensive real estate) or by making it easier to drive hundreds of km through the region’s rugged and rainy terrain.

On the other hand…

Of course, it is easy for me to just say “autonomous cars” and then try to make up a cool-sounding argument around it. But that does not mean in any way that my argument is a good one.

In this case, it may instead be that a short-distance or long-distance approach, of the Winnipeg or Las Vegas variety, really will be better than a medium-distance one. This is something that the league should, I think, try to determine for itself.

If a short-distance strategy is determined to be best, then the obvious choice for expansion would be to put a second team in Toronto. Even with two teams, the municipality of Toronto would have approximately 1.4 inhabitants per NHL team and 700,000 inhabitants per “Big 4” sports franchise. In contrast, the municipalities of of Hamilton and Quebec City are home to only around 500,000 people each.

The Greater Toronto Area (not even including nearby Hamilton or Kitchener-Waterloo) would have 3.2 million people per NHL team and 1.6 million per Big 4 team were it to add a second NHL franchise. The Greater Montreal Area would have just 2 million people per team were it to do so.

A long-distance strategy, on the other hand, might focus on cities in the south, where hockey-loving snowbirds could flock. This could mean a first NHL team in one of the southern states without any, or a second team in Texas, or a third attempt at a team in Atlanta, or maybe even a fourth team in California.

Indeed, the most recent round of NHL expansion in southern cities was during the 1990s, when, perhaps not incidentally, the cost of travel was cheap and the Canadian dollar was weak, as oil prices were at an all-time low. San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Tampa Bay, and Dallas all got teams during 1991-1993 (Ottawa also got a team in 1992), while Phoenix, Denver, Raleigh, Nashville, and Atlanta got teams during 1995-1999.

In contrast, the three since then have been northern: Columbus and Minneapolis in 2000, then Winnipeg in 2011. A long-distance approach, however, might be less friendly towards northern cities—particularly far-northern cities, such as Winnipeg, Quebec City, or Saskatoon. It might worry that too many Canadians will flee the cold and dark of winter to seek the bright sun of the south.

Standard
North America

Should Hockey Fans Be Keynesians?

One of the most common things NHL players tell the media during the playoffs is that, when on the road, they want to play well during the first period in order to “take the fans out of the game early”.

If we assume that the players are correct in thinking that the fans can have strong influence over the game (even though home-team advantage has been quite a bit less significant in the NHL than in the NBA, and arguably has more to do with biases in officiating than anything else) it begs the question of whether some teams’ fans are better at cheering than others.

Usually most of the focus here gets put on sheer loudness: the louder the fans, the better, is the general assumption.  In this year’s playoffs, for example, sportscasters have been talking a lot about how the Rangers’ struggles at home may be due in part to renovations that have made Madison Square Gardens a quieter arena to play in than it used to be.

But what might, perhaps, be lacking in these discussions is a focus on the timing of fans’ cheering. In the NHL, most cheering tends to occur when the home team is already playing well. When a team is doing poorly, however, it is more likely to hear only a brief, classless “Refs You Suck” chant, rather than the more sustained, energizing, and joyous “Go Leafs Go!”

It is not, or at least it does not  appear to be, the fans as a whole who tend to shift the momentum in the game. Rather it seems more often to be individual achievements that do so: a timely goal to get the home team back in the game, a big hit being landed or power play started, or a super-determined (and probably drunk) fan who just wont give up cheering until everybody sitting around him — and then, ultimately, the entire arena — joins in too.

The way fans cheer may be the worst nightmare of the honest, god-fearing Keynesian. Rather than provide stimulus during teams’ recessions, and restraint during their boom times, fans cheer when teams are already playing well, and are often quiet when things look grim.

This raises questions that are usually more associated with economics and politics than hockey. Can stimulus lead to mistakes borne of overconfidence? Is stimulus always equally good, or does it succumb to diminishing returns — and if so, how soon after it begins? And how much better are some governments (or fans) than others at doling out stimulus at the ideal time?

Obviously, these are contested, and more or less unsolved, or even insoluble, questions in economics. In sports, though, we cannot even begin to approach the question, since nobody (as far as I know) has gathered the data that would be necessary to make a start of it. If we want to know more — and yes,  I admit it: this is obviously not really an issue of burning importance — we’re going to need a hockey-loving economist who possesses the skill and resources to do so.

Malcolm Gladwell, if you’re out there somewhere, get to work.

Standard
North America

Captain Compromise: An All-Star Weekend Mini-Tournament in South Korea

Like many who heard the hockey news last week, I feel the decision not to have NHL players attend next year’s Olympics is bittersweet.

On the one hand, the Olympics should, of course, almost by definition, feature the best athletes in the world.

As a Leaf fan in particular, I can’t help but lament the storylines that may now go untold. Matthews and Van Riemsdyk getting even with the Russians for hacking John Podesta’s e-mails. Frederik Andersen standing on his head so much that the Danes end up acheiving their first-ever trip to the podium, beating their historic rival Sweden in a 1-0 octuple-overtime bronze medal game. Or even Zach Hyman, leading an Israeli team manned almost entirely by North American Jews, teaching them how to scour the boards, kill off penalties, and desperately try to help Matthews convert.

Who knows what wild Olympic action we will miss!

On the other hand, one must also respect the owners’ inclination to spend tons of their own money to earn tons more money within a free society. Why should they risk their stars being injured? And anyway, it will be exciting to see more amateur players—and Datsyuk—compete instead.

Also, it’s just sports, so who cares?

Well, alright, I do care. And so do plenty of other sports-crazed hockey lovers, who would also prefer the best players to play. Really, apart from the owners, and Gary Bettman, and some of the stars in the KHL, SEL, and OHL, and their families, and perhaps Kim Jong Un, there isn’t anybody who stands to benefit from players like Kane, Karlsson, Crosby and Ovechkin staying home.

Luckily, there may be a compromise available that would please both owners and fans, which could be used if the NHL does end up going through with the prohibition it announced earlier this week.

The compromise is this: All-Star Weekend in Daegwallyeong-myeon.

It’s pretty simple actually. Instead of only having one hockey category in the Olympics, in 2018 you have two: European Hockey and American Hockey. The European Hockey event will work the same way Olympic hockey tournaments always do, only without any active NHL players in it.

The American Hockey event, however, will be a much shorter, 2-day tournament, involving just 8 teams and playing by NHL rules (smaller ice, hybrid icing, etc. ). The teams will be Canada, the US, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and World. (The World team might in fact have the fewest NHL players on its roster…though solid goaltending). The twin Hockey events will not be held on the same week, so non-NHL star players will be able to compete in both.

The 2-day, 8-team American Hockey event will work as follows. On Day 1, two rounds will be held, each round consisting of one 20-minute hockey game, plus sudden death overtime if needed. The first overtime will be 5-on-5 for 20 minutes, the second overtime 4-on-4 for 5 minutes, and all subsequent overtimes 3-on-3 for 5 minutes at a time. There will be no friggin’ shootouts.

It is likely that, at the end of Day 1, the four advancing teams in the tournament will each have played around 40-90 minutes of hockey; probably closer to 40 minutes. The four losing teams could easily wind up playing only 20 minutes of hockey. Matchups for Day 1 will be selected by lottery.

On Day 2 of the event, the final round will be held: the Bronze Medal Game and Championship Game. Both games will be played by playoff rules: 60 minute regulations and 20-minute 5-on-5 OT’s.

There you have it. The whole thing is over in one action-packed weekend. Canada’s stars grab gold, then head back home to celebrate before the jet-lag even has time to kick in. The players are not so likely to get injured, since, barring a wild series of sudden death overtimes, teams in the event will only play 20-200 minutes of hockey. And fans will not be forced to watch some poor athlete from Latvia or Slovenia try to defend Connor McDavid—or catch a last, peripheral glimpse of Brent Burns’ beard flying at them if they finally do succeed in carrying the puck over the blue line.

So, nu, what do you think? Nothing like a good compromise, eh?

Standard