NFL Lockout to Boost NHL, Penguins: An Interview with Forbes' Mike Colligan
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Six championships. The Rooney Family. The teams of the 1970s.
Pittsburgh is a football town.
This fall, the NFL lockout may do its part to help unravel that hard-earned distinction.
"The loss of an NFL season would obviously create a void as sports fans look for somewhere else to spend their entertainment dollar," said Mike Colligan, NHL Analyst at Forbes SportsMoney.
"I think the revenue boost would be temporary, but it could certainly allow the hockey to get back onto the national radar."
A lockout which shows no signs of slowing down has already kept teams and players from engaging in early-summer workout programs. ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio predicted that early parts of the regular season would be lost if the lockout isn't lifted soon.
The NFL lockout isn't the only work stoppage threatening to leave a void in sports programming this fall.
The NBA seems to be on the fast-track to a lockout of its own, as owners seek the type of hard cap NHL owners fought for in 2005. Some teams, namely the LA Lakers, have payrolls nearly doubling the standing proposed "hard cap" of $45 million.
Good luck telling your premier franchise they'll have to trim their contracts by half.
Baseball ends in late November, college basketball doesn't take off until spring and college football is in no way short of its own pot of controversy (are there any remaining teams not in violation of NCAA regulations?).
Put shortly, hockey has a chance to be the hottest thing going this fall.
While that won't translate to US markets with NBA and NFL franchises whose fans couldn't identify a hockey puck by its shape, markets where hockey is a second- or third-tier sport could see a big spike in puck popularity.
If both lockouts continue into the beginning of the NHL season, hockey will have a legitimate chance to elbow its way back into the kind of national spotlight it enjoyed at its peak in 1994.
While some teams may be looking for ways to create toeholds in their own markets, other, more successful, franchises will have a chance to climb to the top of their respective totem poles.
After five years of sustained success and with a bright outlook for the future, are the Penguins knocking on the door of becoming Pittsburgh's most beloved team?
One year without football may not be enough to knock the Steelers off their perch, says Colligan, but the Penguins have made large enough strides elsewhere to ensure that they'll battle for the city's heart for years to come.
Can the Penguins or Pirates ever catch up to the Steelers in terms of popularity?
BR: Is it fair to call Pittsburgh a football city?
Colligan: It's definitely fair. Pittsburgh is a football city in the middle of a football nation. Baseball is referred to as America's pastime, but it's tough to argue football isn't the most dominant sport across the US.
In the latest NFL team valuations at Forbes, 16 of 32 teams were valued at over $1 billion. By comparison, just one MLB team (the Yankees) was valued over the $1 billion threshold.
BR: What makes Pittsburgh a football city?
Colligan: Without looking at the list above, one would assume the Steelers are definitely one of the most valuable teams in the NFL just because of their mass appeal and enormous fan base. They're ranked 17th, but that doesn't make Pittsburgh any less of a football city.
I think the biggest reason for the team's popularity is consistent success on the field. The Steelers have won more AFC titles and Super Bowls than any other team and as the Pirates began to fade into mediocrity in the early 90s, the Steelers were just beginning an era of dominance.
Since 1992, the Pirates' final year with a record above .500, the Steelers have won the AFC Central/North Division 11 times.
BR: Was the atmosphere surrounding the Penguins during title runs in the early 90s as lasting and intense as the fan frenzy that has followed the current team since the 2006-07 season?
Colligan: The atmosphere surrounding the Penguins' first title run was even more intense than the recent era. Up until that point, the Penguins had never even won their division, let alone a Stanley Cup.
The team really hit rock-bottom (note: intentionally, they basically tanked on purpose) in the 1983-84 season with just 16 wins, and the team looked ready to fold. But with that embarrassing season they earned the right to select Mario Lemieux in the 1984 draft.
With Lemieux in the lineup, the team finally had a glimmer of hope. It wasn't easy and it didn't happen overnight, but fans got reeled in as the team slowly improved each year. The first Stanley Cup run made Pittsburgh residents want to be associated with the Penguins in any way possible. Kids wanted to play the game. Dads wanted to coach. Businesses wanted to have season tickets.
If they didn't have that initial run of success in the early 90s, there wouldn't have been enough public support to keep the team in town when the team hit rock-bottom again around 2000.
BR: Have the Penguins officially taken the Pirates' place as Pittsburgh's second-fiddle?
Colligan: Definitely. Lack of interest in the Pirates is one thing, but it's the friction between the fan base and various ownership groups over the years that is troublesome to me. There will always be baseball fans who buy tickets based on the success, or lack thereof, of the team.
Now, many fans are staying away out of principle. That's not good.
The Penguins have had their down years, but they've never offended the city like the Pirates have. That can be hard to change.
BR: If the lockout sticks, how badly will the Steelers feel the loss of a season?
Colligan: I don't think it will have much of an effect on the Steelers and I think that's a big reason a potential lockout could occur. There's obviously a lot of money to be left on the table with any work stoppage, but it'll be a one-time hit. The sport won't be knocked off the map like hockey was after the lost season in 2004-05.
Whenever the Steelers get back on the field, their fans will be waiting.
BR: Could the loss of the NFL season really do anything for the advancement of hockey (provided NBC doesn't fumble the new TV deal this fall)?
Colligan: The loss of an NFL season would obviously create a void as sports fans look for somewhere else to spend their entertainment dollar. I think the revenue boost would be temporary, but it could certainly allow the hockey to get back onto the national radar.
The NHL's new TV deal with NBC has great potential. The NHL was in a bad spot a few years ago and had to take a national TV deal that paid them nothing more than a share of advertising revenues.
Now that NBC has legitimate money on the table for the next 10 years, they'll be looking to make the investment worthwhile. I would expect them to re-brand the VERSUS cable channel and do everything in their power to position the network as an ESPN competitor. That would mean great things for the advancement of the NHL.
BR: Have the Penguins captured the younger generations of Pittsburgh sports fans more so than the Steelers?
Colligan: Yes. I think the biggest difference between the two franchises is how they've handled success. Both teams currently have no trouble selling tickets and even have extensive waiting lists, but the Penguins have made a conscious effort to stay connected with the younger fan, despite the success.
The Penguins continue to make cheap "Student Rush" tickets available. They've capitalized on the explosion of social media. Right now the return on investment from marketing to teenagers isn't great. Kids don't have disposable income to buy season tickets or suites, but they key is: they WILL.
Team allegiances are formed at a young age. (Just like I mentioned above with the first Cup run, those fans stuck with the team through thick and very thin.)
As kids get older, the Penguins will simply need to maintain their fan base while the Steelers and Pirates battle to win new fans. That's a huge advantage and the Penguins deserve credit for taking a long-term view.
BR: Does Pittsburgh finally have enough of a tradition to be considered a proper hockey town in the mold of Detroit, Buffalo or Chicago?
Football fans: if in a hockey market, can your NHL team replace the loss of the NFL season?
Colligan: Definitely. The Penguins aren't an Original Six franchise, but they already rank 10th in number of Stanley Cups won. They've had four different Art Ross Trophy winners and some of the game's biggest stars have worn a Penguins uniform.
The most telling statistic for me is the fact that ratings for Penguins games have led the NHL's local TV ratings in the US for four-straight seasons.
The second biggest indicator is the growing numbers of local players moving on to NHL careers. As more and more players move on and have success at the pro level, the region gains credibility as a legitimate hockey market.
BR: Can the Penguins really expect to take over as No. 1 in Pittsburgh? What would it take, or is football too entrenched?
Colligan: Leading back to the original point, I think football is just too entrenched in the entire US at this point.
For the Penguins to overtake the Steelers as No. 1 in the next 15 years, it would require a stretch of losing seasons for the Steelers and the emergence of hockey as a top-tier sport.
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