A certain professional American football league, which shall remain nameless so as not draw any publicity in internet searches, is currently locked in an infantile spat between players and owners in an all-out effort to extort and exploit its loyal fans.
There is an ever-diminishing chance that this will be resolved prior to the fall, allowing a quasi-normal 2011 season to be played out.
Many fans have already abandoned ship, at least for the time being. The potential (and—in the eyes of many wiser and more reasonable observers—likely) cancellation of the NFL’s 2011 season will suddenly displace countless sport-hungry Americans, leaving them with a wealth of free time that otherwise would have been dedicated to passionately following football.
This situation creates a unique opportunity for other leagues to lure these fans in and grow their fanbases in the potential absence of the largest and most powerful draw on the American sporting map.
The leagues that stand to gain the most are those on the fringe of the popular awareness right now—as they can greatly benefit from not having to compete with a media behemoth.
Some have rightfully suggested that most Americans will simply swap football for football.
If the college game does not prove suitable enough, so-called “minor” professional leagues like the upstart UFL, the re-emerging Arena Football League may gain a stronger following.
However, it is not unreasonable at all to suspect that a good number of fans may look to expand their sporting horizons and explore other sports.
Perhaps no game is more alluring than the NHL.
Hockey is a fast-paced, physical, action-packed game that might have the perfect combination of exotic appeal and familiar aspects to draw in some fans desperate to supplant their football fix with another "major" pro sports pastime.
While they anger many purists—myself especially included—recent changes like the shootout and more stringent obstruction calls should exaggerate this appeal toward new, casual fans.
Enter the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks have a fairly strong and loyal following, built out of 20 years of ever-improving hockey, but are plagued in trying to attain more widespread legitimacy and “street cred” by a number of factors largely beyond their control.
Their well-chronicled playoff struggles certainly have not helped, but the Sharks are hampered further by the fact that they share a geographical region with numerous other "major" teams—all of whom play in leagues almost universally more followed and accepted than the NHL.
The Sharks have long been the only show in the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.
While this fact has helped them gain popularity throughout the region (from Santa Rosa to San Francisco to Oakland to Gilroy), it has also diluted the pure fervor of the fans.
That, combined with the stigma of hockey and the NHL in America, has subjected them to a second-class status—heretofore subjugated behind the much more popular baseball, football and even basketball teams of the Bay Area.
But if football takes a break, it could be a major boom for the Sharks and the city of San Jose.
The Arena league's San Jose Sabercats are back after a two-year hiatus, and could suck in football-starved fans from San Francisco and Oakland.
The Sharks too could see growth in their following, especially if they can finally win it all in this, their 20th year of operation.
Bay Area fans proved their fickle nature last October when the San Francisco Giants out-performed even their own wildest dreams to win the World Series.
While plenty of loyal and legitimate fans had just cause for celebration after one of pro sports' longest championship droughts ended, the overall scene was quite a sickening spectacle.
People who likely never followed baseball and could not sit through the time-limitless marathon that is a full game began donning that hideous combination of Orange and Black and bleeding the city's costume shops dry of ZZ Top beards.
A large portion of the so called “fans” could not even name a single player on the roster. They foolishly wore children's panda hats despite the fact that Pablo Sandoval wound up having almost no action in the World Series in favor of clearly better options—to shell out money, free advertising and priceless publicity.
If the Sharks finally earn the ultimate prize this year, the fan response could be tremendous. The Sharks already sell out 41-plus games a year, so ticket sales would see no boost, but a win in today's American sports landscape could do wonders toward legitimizing the franchise, the league and the city in the eyes of many.
Let me make it infinitely clear that there is nothing I despise more vehemently than bandwagon fans.
Part of me cringes at the thought of Sharks' “fans” repeating such disgusting antics as the Bay Area was subjected to last fall, but to some extent, that will happen whenever the Sharks finally win it all.
Weighing the potential benefits, it would certainly be worth it.
Perhaps this added incentive could finally push the Sharks over the top.
Keep the Faith!