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Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

NHL Should Listen to Theo Epstein

In 2002, Theo Epstein became the youngest GM in Major League Baseball history when the Boston Red Sox hired him at 28 years of age. He won two World Series with the Red Sox, before stepping down to become the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs in October of 2011. The Cubbies won a championship in 2016.

Epstein knew how to building winning baseball teams. The Red Sox and Cubs ended 85 and 107-year championship droughts respectively under his guidance. He built winners, and was a strong believer in analytics. You can’t question his success.

He stepped down from the Cubs earlier this week, but what stood out more was his comments regarding the state of MLB.

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“It is the greatest game in the world, but there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving. And I take some responsibility for that, because the executives like me who spend a lot of time using analytics and other measures looking to optimize team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game.

“Give the fans more of what they want, and maybe there’s a way to do that through changes over time to give the game back to the hands of the players and let them do their thing on the field. I think that’s the best way to give the fans more of what they want.”

I loved his quote. I think analytics can help us learn and see new things, but the downside in baseball has become apparent. They have long stretches where nothing happens.

And the NHL should be leery of this as well. They can’t wait until fans become disengaged to change. Baseball has turned off many new fans, and even some who loved the game.

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The NHL needs to ensure they don’t do the same to the next generation of fans. The players are faster than ever, but is the game more exciting?

I’d argue it isn’t, and with the advancements in video, analytics and more in-depth coaching there is a strong possibility the game becomes less exciting for the average fan.

There always seems to be more of a focus on how to limit goals, and because of that, I’m concerned that the NHL could follow in the footsteps of MLB. NHL coaches are smart. Give them more data which shows the high danger areas, and they will instruct their players to take those plays/areas/lanes away. It is is inevitable.

The NBA and NFL made some significant rule changes to their games to ensure more offence, and fans loved it. The NHL needs to do the same. It will be difficult, especially with analytics in conjunction with videos.

Epstein’s last statement is one that every pro sports league office should have enlarged and mounted on the wall of their boardrooms.

“Give the fans more of what they want, and maybe there’s a way to do that through changes over time to give the game back to the hands of the players and let them do their thing on the field. I think that’s the best way to give the fans more of what they want.”

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Often pro leagues forget the importance of fans. Their interest fuels their bottom line. If suddenly more fans are watching only the highlights or small snippets of the game, then your attendance and TV viewership will follow.

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Yes, today’s fan consumes the games differently. Many are watching on their phone or tablet, but when the games become less exciting, with fewer grab-your-attention moments, then fans get turned off. The main reason we became fans is due to the emotion and passion sports ignites inside of us. You watch the game, and the agony of defeat or the thrill of victory is the what brings you back.

The diehards will never leave. That is great, but the harsh truth is your true diehard fan doesn’t represent the majority. They are the minority. A very important minority, but a smaller group nonetheless, and if the casual or semi-casual fans finds other entertainment avenues more exciting, they will gravitate towards them.

There is more choice than ever.

Fans learned to live without sports for many months during this pandemic. Business will be different when we emerge from this, and I have no doubt we will get through this, but sports, and the NHL specifically, need to be aware they need to give fans what they want: entertainment that grabs your emotions and doesn’t let go.

If I’m Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and the NHLPA I’m taking Epstein’s words to heart.

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