Marketing the NHL: Is Sidney Crosby Really the Answer?

Steve HeldCorrespondent IFebruary 19, 2008

Sidney Crosby is the new face of the NHL. I've heard that phrase so many times it now haunts me in my dreams.

But I have a few reservations.

For years everyone has been pondering how to improve the on ice product of the NHL. But what makes us think there is something wrong with the game?

I love it. Everyone I know who follows hockey loves it.

Boring neutral zone trap? More boring than not watching? I don't think so.

While I do, however, agree with many of the rule changes, particularly the trapezoid and the acceptance of the two line pass, the game was and still is great.

Believe it or not, I talk to many hockey-ignorant sports fans every time I leave my house. What are we going to do when we leave our respective homes? Going to the bar, we watch Tony Romo, Shaun "I'm Afraid to Put My Shoulder Down" Alexander, Randy Moss, and Marion Barber III. We also go to watch Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and AI.

What's that? You already know who these guys are and what sports and even positions they play? Hmm...

The problem in the NHL is a formerly three-billion dollar industry cannot find competent marketing strategies. It's all about recognition. When Barry Bonds is at the plate, his name and stats are on the overlay. Same for pitchers. When Ray Allen makes a jumper, casual sports fans can see that clearly. Tom Brady throws a pass, we know it's him. We know Randy Moss caught it.

Have any of us (hockey fans) left the house in search of a random pickup game to watch? Of course not, because the players would be meaningless to us. We play sports because we love them. We watch because we love the teams, the faces; the recognition, the loyalty. When people watch ESPN and hockey highlights come on, they hear a name, but all they see is a guy with a number on his back. 

To unfamiliar fans, hockey is a bunch of indistinguishable guys skating all over the place. The NHL simply needs to do a better job marketing players, not "improving the on-ice product."

So now we have the "new face of the NHL" in Sidney Crosby, but I feel like the kid's got the personality of a cardboard box.

I don't mean to insult Crosby, but he doesn't seem to have the natural charisma that some other players do: Sean Avery, Ray Emery, Marty Turco, Jarome Iginla, to name just a few. Even Alex Ovechkin has more charisma and he hardly speaks any English.

The last two TV appearances that I can recall were Crosby, then a bunch of Ducks on Jay Leno. The guests were more or less boring, all lacking genuine depth, intrigue, or humor. If Sean Avery were to go on Conan O'Brien he'd surely have some funny stories and would earn plenty of enthusiasm, and I'm not saying that because I'm a Rangers fan. Get Rick DiPietro, the NY Islanders goaltender who turned down an offer to star on the reality show The Bachelor, which would have been a golden NHL publicity opportunity. 

Sidney's skills certainly talk a big game. The unfortunate thing is that ability will only resound with those already fluent in the hockey. To buy into hockey, most Americans will need more than just the promise of great skill in a vaguely understood sports language.