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How Much Does Star Power Matter?

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Puck Daddy raises a question I've long thought about, how much does star power matter? In particular, he quotes the new co-owner of the Florida Panthers, Stu Siegel, who mentions Ilya Kovalchuk and the Atlanta market. "That one superstar, arguably one of the top 10 players in the League. And the market doesn't know who he is, or they're not marketing him properly."

I have opinions about lots of things, but marketing is not my forte, so I'll withhold comment on that angle. But what I can say is that winning hockey seems to be more important than superstar talent in terms of drawing fans. At some point, watching Kovalchuk score in yet another home team loss gets old. It is in my view that winning, and especially winning in the post-season, is crucial to attracting in the casual sports fans in a market and transforming mild fans into crazy die hard ones.

As a kid growing up in Michigan, my hockey hero was Steve Yzerman, and it would have been broken-hearted if they would have traded him away. But nothing compares to the intensity of a knock-down drag-out playoff battle that goes seven games. When I first tuned into NHL hockey, the local team had the good fortune to advance all the way to the Western Campbell Conference Finals two years in a row. There was a thrilling--almost miraculous--series where the team rallied from being behind 3-to-1 against the hated Toronto Maple Leafs. Then, both times the Gretzky-Messier-Fuhr-Coffey Oilers ended the playoff run--but what a thrilling journey it was. An entire month of living on the edge.

In my mind, the playoffs are the crucible that forges deep fan attachment, not superstars. Unlike the NBA where the superstar nearly always produces points, even the very best NHLers are only on the ice 30%-40% of the game and they don't score every game--that is just the nature of the modern NHL.

Now if I'm correct about how the playoffs are very important, some might argue that we include more teams in the playoffs. During the 21 team NHL that I grew to love, 16 out of 21 teams made the post-season, that's a crazy 76% of the league. Today 16 of 30 teams or 53% qualify. The regular season is already so long that I'm opposed to making the post-season longer (and the regular season nearly meaningless).

For markets like Atlanta and Miami, the goal must be fielding a competitive hockey team most years. An exciting post-season trumps any clever or expensive marketing campaign. It is much easier to push a product that sells itself.