It’s only natural that the hockey community’s perspective on ESPN’s amazing/contentious idea, their “Ultimate Standings,” would focus on the Leafs being dead last among all sports franchises. For even such a flawed methodology as one that basically asks a frustrated group of fans what they think, those results deserve a little bit of commentary. But there might also be a few things we can learn from what amounts to marketing data made public.
(Aside: what is with this trend? Pitchfork did something similar with their People’s List, which was treated around the internet as if it wasn’t just free market research. They even broke down all the demographics. Sports has always been a little bit more comfortable with its commercial nature, but indie music? It’s a weird contradiction to me to have so many indie fans happy to share their consumer habits in a public way.)
ESPN’s methodology is a combination of the standard—weighted averages across eight key categories, designed to smooth outliers and exemptions, economic analysis—and counterproductive—polling fans by phone and online. I say it’s counterproductive because if the goal is to collect reliable data and drop the extreme deviations, then you’d also need to account for the fact that sports fans tend to harbor hyperbolic attitudes towards their favorite and least favorite franchises. You can’t just ask sports fans for the objective truth. A real “Ultimate List” would measure fans actions over time, as opposed to opinions. (That’s an interesting discussion in itself: what counts? Just attendance at events and watching on TV, or blogging, and shopping, and Tweeting, etc.?) It’s not unusual for a sports fan to put one thing in extremely strong terms and do another thing altogether.
It’s also difficult to understand how a fan in one city might render judgment of another city’s “fan experience.” How would an Ottawa Senators fan answer the question of fan experience about the Leafs? I’ve been to a Leafs game and thought the atmosphere was amazing, especially considering they were already out of the playoffs and they were playing the Blues. Can I be trusted, as a rival fan, to say that in a poll? Even just looking at Title Track: “Championships already won or expected in the lifetime of current fans.” Pretty sure we know how Leafs fans feel about the latter part of that sentence, but they won quite a few Cups back when the sport was played in a tanning factory in Depression Era New England. How does a Leafs fan answer that question v. a Sens fan?
A good deal of the factors are economic—in other words, value for money—which is often tied directly to how poor the team is. The Coyotes are listed as the best NHL team on the strength of coaching, loyalty to players, and how cheap everything is. Depending on solid coaching, loyal players, and cheap tickets is just the sort of thing a team this close to folding has to do.
Therein is the contradiction for fans to consider when in the middle of CBA negotiation designed to increase the prosperity of teams. If the Toronto Maple Leafs, the most profitable team in the league, are the worst at delivering a good product at a good price, and the Coyotes, a total financial mess, are the best, is there an inverse relationship between a team’s profitability and fan enjoyment? Makes sense to me. You will derive more value buying products that are not in high demand. The OHL team in Ottawa, the 67s, delivers an amazing product for about $20 a pop. That’s much more value than the Senators, but we can’t pretend that the OHL is the NHL anymore than we can pretend that the Coyotes are as valuable to the league as the Leafs.
It calls into question the way the ratings are weighted. Title track is weighted much less than, say, coaching or affordability. But I can imagine quite a few Leafs fans who would think that all of the expensive tickets and years of poor coaching would be worth it if they could have that one, cathartic championship win. More importantly, I can think of a few Leafs fans who would spend all of their money on anything Leafs related if the Leafs won a cup. But it’s still a valid question: would you rather have a cheap and still reasonably fun hockey experience or a contender?
A lot of the NHL teams near the top of list are either teams that are forced to sell cheap tickets due to poor economic performance, or are in non-traditional hockey markets—Tampa Bay, New Jersey, Nashville, St. Louis. Some of the most profitable teams in hockey are near or at the bottom—the New York Rangers are in the middle at 63, the Canucks are 92, Montreal is 111, and of course Toronto is last at 122. I’m left to wonder, relying only on the results of ESPN’s flawed algorithm, if the fan who intersects with the game on very tangible levels—how much do tickets cost and does the team win?—will be better off without greater economic and performance parity. It seems to me that the better the team is in both of these categories, the more the fan is bled for their bucks.
It’s something to consider as players and league officials try to win the hearts and minds of fans during a lockout. Bettman has promised lower ticket prices before, and he probably learned enough of a lesson not to do that again. But when asked what they want out of this whole mess, fans may do well to remember that the owners have no intention of making their product more affordable if they get the kind of concessions they’re seeking from the players.
For Sens fans, Ottawa finds itself at a respectable 42. They do particularly well in fan relations (32), ownership (25 – which also includes community involvement, which Ottawa has a great history of. Glad to see it recognized here) and, interestingly, coaching and on-field leadership (21). You’ve got Jack Adams nominee Paul MacLean, and Alfredsson as one of the longest serving captains in the league, but last year they were rated 117 in that category. Quite an improvement for one year. Similarly, ownership improved by 25 spots and fan relations by 20 spots. The players’ ‘effort and likeability’ also improved an incredible 47 spots, which sounds about right considering the team doesn’t employ Alex Kovalev anymore.
I don’t know if the team’s community outreach was really that much better last season than the season before, but that’s fan perception for you: if a team outperforms dismal expectations, every single aspect of your team is perceived more favorably. It will be interesting to see where Ottawa figures on this list next year now that the Hockey News has picked them to be a playoff team. In the meantime, we’re left to wonder if the next six or seven year CBA will create a landscape in which owners will make much more profit and pass along their good fortune to us in the form of price hikes.