The NHL Business Model: Why Opponents of Fighting Should Suck It up, Hold Their Noses

Montreal Canadiens right wing George Parros (15) hits his head on the ice as he fights with Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Colton Orr (28) during the third period at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports - Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Nashville Scene "Hippodrome" columnist and III Communication blogger J.R. Lind and I have been having a, uh, "vibrant" Twitter conversation over whether or not fighting should continue in the NHL. I decided that the only way to settle the debate is to drop the mitts and organize some thoughts on the matter for OTF readers. If you're not familiar with the online comic strip xkcd, readers will do well to click here before reading any further.

In the wake of a freak accident/gruesome injury to Montreal Canadiens forward George Parros on Opening Night this week, during his second tussle of the night with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Colton Orr, J.R. Lind begins his critique of fighting in hockey, saying that he objects to fighting because of its aesthetics, because the skill of fighting isn't inherent in hockey. True, they don't teach you how to fight when you're five years old and in pee wee. Even at adult levels, players in NCAA competition don't fight, and there's no fighting on the international stage—at the Olympics, for example.

But fighting is unique to professional hockey, and it has been part of the game for a long time. It is part of the reason fans fork over hard-earned dollars to sit in a cold building for a few hours. This is the traditionalist position, one I take. So I'd like to begin my argument that fighting is going nowhere until the NHL changes its business model with the premise that "fighting belongs in the NHL because fans pay for it" (or rather, "fighting belongs because fans don't stop paying in the presence of it"). J.R.'s phrasing is helpful, I think:

It's helpful phrasing not least because that's precisely how we should think about ticket sales:

Tickets are individual licenses to consume entertainment. Season ticket holders, especially across multiple seasons, may fashion themselves as "investors" in the team, but in reality they’re simply paying to consume entertainment, just like the casual fan who buys a discounted single ticket on a Monday night with his/her military ID. The season ticket holder is just paying more up front for more entertainment than the guy/gal buying a single seat on a given game night.

In one sense, fights, whether staged goon fights or an emotional captain trying to spark his wayward squad like this Sidney Crosby vs. Claude Giroux tussle (in the playoffs, no less, where fighting is more rare than in the regular season), are the product, just like the goals, the passes, the checks, etc.

They're part of the total in-game entertainment package, as much as intermission musical performances in Nashville (which, I would argue, are far less inherent in hockey than fighting, and yet we still pay for them when we buy a ticket—but nobody is calling for a ban on intermission musical performances, despite protests from my poor ear canals...). So it's helpful to the discussion to think about the NHL business model in this way.

But in another sense, fans themselves are the product of the National Hockey League. Franchises don't just sell individual licenses to consume entertainment (tickets). They also sell captive audiences to advertisers through sponsorships and corporate partnerships. Regular, capacity fan attendance at NHL games justifies high advertising rates, a point at which I hinted in my recent piece about the insane "Keep the Red Out" campaign:

Whether it's a high-traffic website charging nice premiums for digital real estate for banner ads (or access to its email subscription lists), or twenty minutes of teasers and previews shown to a packed movie theater on a Friday night, organizations profit by selling advertising opportunities to third parties. Even if the Predators capture an increase in paid ticket sales to non-Blackhawks games this year as a result of this gimmick, that will amount to a paltry three games with increased paid sales, out of a possible 41 home games. Are the Predators kidding with this "we're going to build ticket grosses" off the backs of out of town fans, who may or may not pay for tickets to three stinking games? Look, every penny counts, no doubt, but will increasing paid attendance at less than 10% of your home games really matter to potential corporate partners or sponsors? Do the potential corporate partners and/or sponsors even care about whether or not the eyeballs at the game to whom they get an opportunity to market their widgets even paid to be there? Or do they just care that they're there, and that they (the sponsors) will get advertising opportunities?

That's another way to think about the NHL business model, but it's less helpful than the first way because it's really hard to study the effects of fighting on ticket grosses—more difficult, I would argue, than studying the effects of fighting on wins. The exogenous factors in an individual's entertainment consumption choices far outnumber the endogenous factors in a hockey game that contribute to the final score. Dirk and I actually had a conversation offline about this recently, while he was working on his post on the Nashville Predators' value as a pro sports franchise; he had scrubbed Metro Sports Authority data to get a paid Preds ticket gross figure for use in that piece, and we talked about how we might measure the value of fighting in terms of paid grosses after a Ryan Lambert critique of preseason fighting surfaced.

Regarding this claim:

Even if we agree that there's no correlation between fighting and wins, it's not correct to assume that fighting will disappear naturally because there's no correlation between the two. Staged fighting might disappear, but neither fighting as a whole nor gruesome, accidental injuries will disappear necessarily. Agitator-fighters of the Rich Clune variety will likely become the new standard in the NHL—and that's fine! But that's not taking fighting out of the game, and what the "no more fighting" crowd has failed to persuade traditionalists like me of is that "all fighting" has no place in the game. J.R. might not personally be reaching that far in his critique of this aspect of the game, but many in the media and hockey intelligentsia are calling for a total end to fighting, and those are the people to whom I directed my bleeding heart remark yesterday.

Aside: I also don't think the ends of selling entertainment and winning championships are mutually exclusive, but I digress.

Incidentally, I think Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy blog has had the best piece on this topic I've read so far, with a particular eye toward why NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman remains so silent on the issue, and I really liked this passage in the conclusion to the piece:

If fighting has a place in the game, then it’ll change and morph and adapt as players do the same. There is always going to be fighting—the game is much too physical and dangerous for there not to be, for policing or revenge purposes—but its frequency and occurrences will probably diminish in future generations.

But that belies my point that unless the NHL changes its business model, and (a) fans continue to pay for sanctioned violence, and (b) organizations continue to profit from capacity audiences, enforcer fighting is here to stay, I think. The only other two alternatives to changing the NHL business model that I see are to (1) use blunt instruments of policy to ban fighting (game misconduct penalties as called for by Tampa Bay Lighting GM Steve Yzerman, increasing the cap on player fines from $10,000—ratified under rule 18.7(b) in the last CBA (PDF)—to something in the six figure range, or begin fining or firing referees who blow calls), or (2) to change the type and quality of fan who pays for tickets to hockey games. Maybe that's the goal of the media project currently under way:

This is an incredibly insulting, degrading, condescending position to take, and these bleeding hearts both deserve and should expect a lot of pushback against their arguments. But even the policy changes, especially ones involving an impact on someone's wallet, are incredibly heavy lifts.

From where I sit, whether or not fighting belongs, or whether or not it's "good for the game" doesn't really enter into the debate as long as it's good for the bottom line. Ultimately, the bottom line is what the Board of Governors and the NHLPA both care about: organizations bringing in dollars through tickets sales and corporate sponsorships, and players having jobs. What I'm hearing and reading is that no fighting has any place in the game, and I will continue to reject that position until it has been more completely substantiated, both as a business case and as a hockey case. It's unfortunate that, as I said previously, fighting's effect on ticket grosses is incredibly difficult to isolate and study.

"I think the fact is most people who make arguments for or against fighting either like or don't like it," said Lind to me in a direct message on Twitter (follow him if you aren't already: @jrlind). "I think it's ALWAYS an argument about aesthetics, and people can wrap it in whatever they want." The former is a fair point, intuitively. J.R. doesn't like the violence of fighting against the backdrop of an otherwise elegant sport. I, on the other hand, can't imagine a world without fighting in hockey. The latter point, well . . . I will continue my quest to find a good way to study fighting's impact on ticket grosses, because I suspect the business case will be the linchpin of any changes to the NHL game that do (or don't) occur, for better or for worse.

What do you think, readers? Take our poll, and sound off in the comments below.

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