A few months ago, the debate was raised amongst Michiganders — is Detroit still Hockeytown? For a short period, it looked as though hockey had passed its Golden Years in the Motor City. The Pistons were poised to make another deep playoff run, the Michigan Wolverines had a highly ranked football team, and the Lions were busy assembling their first winning season in years. Now it is clear that Hockeytown is here to stay. Michigan finished the season unranked, and will face the Florida Gators in the Capital One Bowl on January 1st. The Lions surged out to a 6-2 start, and had a chance to take the division lead from the Packers — since that time, they have lost five straight games, and have fallen, once again, to a lowly losing record. While the Pistons appear strong, the greatest sports team in Detroit right now are the NHL’s Red Wings.
At 22-6-3, the Wings’ 47 points puts them on top of the entire NHL. Games are generally televised, and the team even opened up a section of $9 tickets for home games. Hockey has just not been this accessible in recent years, yet fan support still dwindles. Average attendance has dropped to just under 18,000 fans per game, a figure that may be high for some markets, but is certainly disappointing for the Red Wings. Last season, the team sold out all regular season home games, before failing to sell out a single game during the playoffs. Tickets will certainly continue to cost a pretty penny unless you are fortunate enough to get your hands on the limited supply of $9 offers, but hockey is definitely the top sports pick for this winter. Henrik Zetterberg has continued to impress, and leads the team with 23 goals and 20 assists. Not to be outdone, Pavel Datsyuk has 12 goals and 24 assists of his own. Hockey is simply more entertaining to me than anything else Detroit has to offer at the moment. My time spent watching sports has been limited to a point of near suffocation, however on those rare days when I have both time to watch a game and a choice of which game to watch, I keep it on the ice. I have said it before and I will say it again: the “new” NHL is far more entertaining than the old product, and it’s a damn shame so many people are missing out.
The Red Wings and the NHL still have plenty to learn in the area of marketing, though the best thing either can do is to put a quality product on the ice, and the league & its owners have done just that. Tickets for Wings contests range from just over $20 to nearly $90, leaving many common people out. If the Red Wings truly want more fans to see the games, the only thing left to do is lower ticket prices, plain and simple. I’ve never been to a Wings game myself, I haven’t the money to spare. Maybe getting an extra 2000 fans into Joe Louis Arena each night with lower prices would detract from the team’s total revenue, but with the salary cap, the Red Wings should have a lot of breathing room in the budget. After all, the payroll used to exceed $80 million — now it’s under $50 million. If the NHL wants to be considered a major sports league in the long term, they have to get fan interest up today, so it can spread tomorrow. A big step towards this goal is fixing the unbalanced scheduling problem, something that the league appears to have remedied. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the new format earlier in the year, which includes “24 divisional games, 40 in-conference matchups, 15 games against non-conference teams and three wild card games against out of conference teams.” Each team plays every team in the league at least one time. That means no longer must fans here in Detroit wait three years in between Sidney Crosby sightings, and matchups against teams other than Columbus, Chicago, and Nashville. The league has plenty of talent, and it made no sense not to show it all off. Even if the NHL remains a niche market, that is fine, so long as it caters to its niche correctly. Steps are being taken to ensure that this is the case. I strongly encourage everyone to watch more hockey this season — if a championship comes to Detroit in 2008, it just might be the Stanley Cup. The action is physical, lightning quick, and sometimes unpredictable. Hope is not lost for Detroit — do not let the same old Lions ruin your winter. After all, Detroit is Hockeytown, and represents the game on a level unseen in any city in North America. Young talent, veteran leadership, and classic hockey moments day-in and day-out.
Don’t forget to vote your Red Wings into the 56th NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta. Look for the best of the best to come out on 27 January 2008. Balloting ends January 2nd.
XM/NHL All-Star Fan Balloting (Presented by 2k Sports)