Hockey and Soccer: Separated at Birth? – Part 1

Once again I’m not writing the article I planned to write, but with a day of giant upsets in college hoops, a canceled flight and an OT Gold Medal Game, you can’t really expect me to sit around researching for articles can you? 😉 Well, I did a little…

The ice-cold reality is that hockey in the U.S. is a niche sport.  I’d disagree in general and it’s particularly a hard sell after watching the US’ run to the silver medal, but despite there being teams in LA and Atlanta, I might call it a ‘regional’ sport.  For some reason, that seems less demeaning, though the meaning is probably the same.  If you can’t grow up playing a game, you probably aren’t going to be a big fan.  When I was a kid growing up in Tuscaloosa, it was a lot easier to dream of being Bart Starr or Joe Namath, than it was Wayne Gretzky, even if Gretzky was a member of the Super Friends.  By the time the Hurricanes moved to Raleigh (or Greensboro as the case was at first), I was in high school.  There can still be some backyard dreaming in high school, but the ‘childhood dreams’ are pretty much gone at that point. Even if I had been the Hurricanes fan I am now, I still would have had to have driven to Charlotte to play.  Let me be clear, I am not advocating we throw up all sorts of rinks in the south so kids can play.  I love hockey, but if I’m going to be doing any advocating for more TV time , it’s going to be for soccer…mostly because I’m tired of FSC terrible video quality and tired of getting up at 6:45am to watch the good games (might be more on this later).

Rick Liebling makes an interesting comment on niche sports, ‘Individually they will remain fringe sports in this country, so let’s not pretend otherwise,’ but fails to fully develop the idea.  Rick is undoubtedly discussing sports more niche than hockey or soccer in this country, but I think he’s on to something talking about the European club system.  Hockey and football are undoubtedly more popular in Europe (regionally for hockey again) the the big three of American sports.  I’m not trying to be all Europhile, but particularly in football (since hockey is a North American sport), taking some queues from the other side of the pond would be good.  The NASL went the way that Portsmouth is going to go in part because they Americanized the game.  The problem with the MLS isn’t that there aren’t soccer fans here, it’s that the soccer fans here don’t care.  The MLS formerly had some weird schedule rivaled probably by Scotland’s table split or Australia’s weird sorta-kinda double-elimination tournament, but thankfully that too will be going the way of the NASL due to the addition of the Philadelphia Union.  The MLS having promotion/relegation is a pipe dream, but a single table causes no problems.  Going with a ‘play twice’ format does nothing to save teams money/cut carbon, the greatest advantage of having regionalized divisions.  Odd numbers of games against teams for the NBA, NHL and particularly MLB don’t matter too much because the seasons are so long.  However, the new MLS season (as the old) will be 30 games long, making it closer to the NFL season (both in sheer numbers and by percentage).  I think crowning the champion as the person that finishes first could also be a reality without major hiccups, but one I don’t see happening.  The MLS has the Support’s Shield, but that’s not the true champion.  Have a Carling Cup style tourney if you like (and of course there is the FA Cup-style Open Cup), just make it a separate competition.  I’m with Bob Knight on this.  Single-elimination tournaments are bollocks.

There’s one last point I want to bring back the comparison between the ‘plights’ of the NHL and MLS.  The MLS is also regional, but in a different way.  While there’s nothing stopping a North Dakota native from dreaming of becoming the next Landon Donovan like there is kids from Alabama becoming the next Patrick Kane, the kids in North Dakota simply don’t care.  However, in cities where there is always going to be a larger immigrant population or in the south/southwest where there is Hispanic migration, people do care.  The NHL needs to focus on Canada and the northern US, because that’s where the money is.  I love the Carolina Hurricanes, but they are never going to get the love the Panthers do.  The MLS is already targeting major cities because that’s what professional sports teams do, but they aren’t targeting the right demographics (with perhaps the exception of Toronto, Seattle and Chivas USA)

No prediction on next Sunday’s article.  I’m still doing valuable ‘research’ on the FIFA 2010 review, as well as the indoor/outdoor soccer article.  I’m also going to come out with part two of this article at some point where I take Liebling’s idea of branding niche sports together and give you some thoughts on how this could be done.

I’d also like to get your thoughts on shorter posts.  Jeff suggested I break up my articles.  I’d like to keep a Sunday deadline, just to make sure I churn stuff out regularly.  Do you prefer the RSS feed to be populated at the same time each week?  I know I like that xkcd comes out on a regular schedule, but maybe I’m just anal-retentive.

As always, thanks for reading!

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I played four varsity sports in high school (gridiron, track, football and basketball). I went to states with a relay team in North Carolina and made the state semi-finals in football (soccer). I also coached travel football for TFC ( and worked for Eurosport/ I graduated from the University of New Hampshire School of Law, where I study intellectual property and sports law.

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