This year's Stanley Cup Finals between the Kings and Devils produced many recurring media themes, from the well-endowed woman lurking behind Pete DeBoer to the numerous gaffes produced by Los Angeles' local media. For those that focused on the business side of the game, a common topic became the lackluster national TV ratings in the United States.
Despite involving the Los Angeles market in the Finals for the first time since 1993, the overall numbers fared worse than last year's Boston Bruins/Vancouver Canucks series, even though that series featured a team from outside the country.
Puck-focused critics point to a number of factors while the more casual media observer reverts back to the tired "People don't like hockey" meme. And while there is truth in much of the noise, zeroing in solely on those points winds up creating a snapshot rather than a big-picture perspective.
Here's the thing: In general, the Stanley Cup Finals create new fans. For popular teams with a rich history and/or recognizable star players, it offers plenty of room for bandwagoners to climb aboard. But for teams still trying to become significant in the market, a Stanley Cup Finals appearance does something far more important -- it lays the groundwork for creating a new generation of fans. And when it comes to an actual Cup victory, the ripple effect is felt for years to come.
As die-hard hockey fans, we know that there is nothing like the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's a spectacle that is rarely matched in sport, and that's why it plants so many seeds for new fans. Over the long haul, this trickles down to TV ratings and ticket sales. However, one area that's rarely mentioned is the impact of a Stanley Cup on a grassroots level.
Does your non-traditional market need a boost in amateur players? Just win that big silver chalice.
The tangible effect of this doesn't come directly at the box office or TV ratings (though those certainly reach new plateaus); rather, it's in the community. The Carolina Hurricanes provide a solid example of this.
When the Hartford Whalers became the Hurricanes in 1997, the situation was beyond grim. Stuck in a temporary facility in Greensboro, N.C., the Hurricanes were lucky if they put 8,000 butts in the seats for home games. The opening of their own arena in Raleigh in 1999 helped, but it took a deep playoff run to really keep things rolling.
"The run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 really got the ball rolling, so I think even if Carolina had fallen short against Edmonton in 2006 the core would be intact," says Cory Lavalette of SB Nation's Canes Country. "Winning the 2006 Cup definitely legitimized hockey in the Triangle. The local college basketball culture of success -- North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State -- made anything less than a championship seem like small potatoes in comparison. Once the Hurricanes won, it put them up on equal ground with the other acts in town."
For the Canes, this increased the core fanbase, ensuring stable attendance and growing TV ratings despite only one playoff appearance since the 2006 Cup. More importantly, it prioritized hockey for the local fans, including growth in local youth hockey leagues.
"People really fell in love with hockey," says Lavalette. "While the Hurricanes don't sell out game after game, the core fan base is rabid and, more importantly, young people are playing and obsessing over hockey."
In the years leading up to Carolina's 2006 Cup run, the number of North Carolina ice hockey players grew modestly year by year. The season following the Cup win saw the state's registered USA Hockey players (adults and children) jump from 4,793 to 5,726. In the five-year span stemming from 2005's lockout year to 2010, youth hockey enrollment jumped 31.25 percent.
Another example of the Stanley Cup community bump comes from the Dallas Stars. Since relocating from Minnesota in 1993, the Stars organization has put a heavy emphasis on building the game from the ground up.
A state with just 868 registered amateur players in 1990-91, USA Hockey tallied 11,531 Texas-based players for the 2011-12 season. Chris Peters, a veteran staffer for USA Hockey and blogger at The United States Of Hockey, noted that the season following Dallas' 1999 Stanley Cup saw a spike in registration by 1,100 people -- more than the total number of players when the Stars arrived.
What's interesting is that the Stars' attendance numbers don't follow the upward amateur trend. In fact, the Stars attendance has dropped considerably in recent years, but much of that comes under the context of a floundering team and ownership strife. Once Tom Gaglardi took over the team this past season, Dallas fans began to come back -- Gaglardi himself noted an increase of about 5,000 per game following the ownership change.
Will fans return in droves once the team returns to elite status? The Stars can look south to the Tampa Bay Lightning for reasons to believe they will.
Success is key to sustaining a team's spot in its market. The Stanley Cup itself acts as a bit of a gateway drug, and for many that have been bitten by the bug, it's easy to come back for more -- even after years of everything going wrong. The Tampa Bay Lightning have witnessed this firshand, as the team climbed to respectability a few years after the expansion glow wore off. After that, pitiful seasons created equally dismal attendance, including an average attendance of 11,510 in the 1998-99 season. A rebuild process culminated in the 2004 Stanley Cup championship.
Following the Cup win and the subsequent lockout, the Bolts' former ownership group, OK Hockey, quickly decimated the franchise, and it took a new regime to store the market's faith in the club, according to John Fontana of SB Nation's Raw Charge.
"I think attendance numbers from 2003-04 through 2011-12 sort of exemplify the truth that fans embraced the team in good times (and even mediocre) while they fled during poor times, only to return as the team rebounded."
Fontana cites a 2009 post by James Mirtle that pointed out just how poor ownership decimated the team's appeal in the market.
"And, yet, there's been a rapid rebound with the Lightning and solid team management," says Fontana. "The Lightning's average attendance jumped in 2010-11 and further spiked in 2011-12 (with a depressed economy and a non-playoff team, to boot)."
While Fontana won't pin the depth of the fanbase solely on the Cup, he acknowledges that it certainly played a part in laying the groundwork for new fans -- and that groundwork helped the team return to market prominence when ownership and management stability arrived.
"People came after the Cup, they stayed during the so-so times that immediately followed the Cup victory, they ran when the team was dominated by dysfunction and poor management, but returned as level stewardship and team competitiveness returned to the Bolts," says Fontana.
That's really the lesson behind all of this. Consistent success usually creates a strong core fanbase, but nothing gives it a bump like a Stanley Cup. In his early tenure as NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman talked about a "national footprint" for the league in the United States. He also often pointed to the fact that it takes a few generations to really feel the effects of this.
Non-traditional Cup Finals teams do weaken national exposure during that one season, but the success of those teams grows the game in another way. Rather than creating record-setting national TV numbers, it accelerates the conversion of a local market's casual observers to die-hard hockey fans. This spurs youth and adult hockey involvement, which ultimately creates fans for life.
And as many of us know, hockey winds up in the blood, passed from generation to generation.
The NHL's goal is to have all teams hold prominent places in their respective markets. Even though the Los Angeles Kings weren't the same national draw this yeas as, say, the Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins would have been, sometimes it's not just about the immediate return. History shows that a Stanley Cup win has a tangible trickle down effect, creating everything from die-hard hockey players to bandwagoners willing to learn the game. When the team takes a dip, there's a greater safety net of people willing to tough it out -- and when the team starts winning again, there's a chance that even more people will return. While that doesn't have the sexiness of big TV ratings, the Board of Governors probably realizes that it's a significant long-term investment in stability.
As for the Kings themselves, though, they may have a little bit of a tougher climb. Earl Sleek, Anaheim Ducks fan and SB Nation's cartoonist extraordinaire, notes that despite any inroads the Kings' run has made, there's always the X-factor of the Los Angeles market.
"L.A. is going to see a boost in tickets no matter what happens this series," says Sleek. "How it will play out down the road will probably depend on how well the team does -- in SoCal, that matters."
But given the team that Dean Lombardi's put together, there's a good chance the Kings will contend for a long time -- and for their next playoff run, the fans generated by this year's Cup win might give the league another market worthy of a press release touting huge TV ratings.
In the meantime, those L.A.-area rinks better brace themselves. If history tells us anything, there's a new crop of amateur players wanting to hit the ice.