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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Market for Smart: Does Hockey Need Some PhD's?

In the seemingly-off-topic-but-not-really dept.:

I've come across a rarity: an online reference to "hockey and sabermetrics."

Hockey's woes are so severe today that few Americans will care once the sport resumes play in the fall, if it does.

Why is it that such a deep, unshakeable market has grown up around the other major sports, but not hockey? I don't buy that it's Canada's game. The old six-team NHL inspired a ton of loyalty in Boston, New York, Detroit, Chicago. The Philadelphia Flyers ruled the 1970's (that would be part of the problem, likely). And who can forget the glory days of the old Buffalo Sabres.

Baseball, in spite of the many body blows it's taken, continues to hold viewer interest. Football fans are rabid, and armchair analysts (in the annual office pool) are becoming more rabid all the time.

Could it be that when you're not playing something, you'd better feel like you're involved in some way? Even your average joe likes to swap stats. And since Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, people even talk about changing approaches to interpreting stats. Viewers are looking at a game that has stood the test of time for well over a century, and asking themselves: is the steal overvalued? Why is our stupid leadoff hitter still swinging at first pitches? Did Player X - the one with the .385 batting average - almost not get drafted just because he was short and ugly?

The beauty of sabermetrics (and baseball, and football too, in all of its complexity) is that it makes a great "date sport." The "man" can impress his date with his superior analytical mind, and she can pretend to be impressed. If she should surprise him with her grasp of the complexities, he just might fall in love. That'll sell a bunch of tickets, at least for a few seasons.

Football, for all its mayhem, has complicated coverages, and stats galore.

Hockey? It's never really been like that. In spite of a few wonderful ambassadors like Gretzky, Lemieux, and Bossy, the culture of the sport has generally been kept at the troglodyte level. The "old coaches" love to govern with fear and superstition -- much like the semi-literate "old scouts" described by Lewis in Moneyball. The ones who are slowly being replaced by number-crunchers.

Unlike football and baseball, hockey is a flow game. If the ice were widened and whistles minimized, it would actually be the best game going. The analysis of stats wouldn't be as extensive, and they'd be different kinds of stats. But it's what a modern game needs to make the office pools worth playing, to provide the kind of white-collar, armchair-expert discourse that keeps people talking. "Real guys" can also argue about cheap shot artists and acceptable hockey hair length if they want.

The state of statistical analysis in hockey is utterly maddening. Think about the key statistic in baseball: the batting average. Did you ever hear a ballplayer being judged by the absolute number of hits he gets (unless it's a lot)? Yet in hockey, a player who plays seven minutes a game is routinely described by his "15 goal season" or "he only has six goals in the first half." Some supposed superstars are on the ice 30 minutes a game. Shouldn't we be looking at "points per minute played"?

In general, hockey needs to smarten up a bit and get a bit of an image makeover. The old hockey men need to change their stripes. A bean counter like Gary Bettman can't motivate such changes. The sport needs gracious leaders and revolutionary thinkers -- the kinds of guys who played the game, and probably attracted their fair share of beatings for using big words, until the other guys found out they could defend themselves. Ken Dryden has left for parliament, and speaks too slowly. I dunno, maybe they should put that quipster Brett Hull in charge, and the first thing he should do is hire some marketing consultants and a few number-crunchers with PhD's. Such a good game, gone so wrong. It's because there is less of a market for "stupid" than people think, even in a fast, violent game.

They called boxing "the sweet science," didn't they?

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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