My Free Marketing Advice to CBC and the Toronto Maple Leafs

Because there is really little new to read about when it comes to NHL news (a lockout is funny that way), and in light of the labour disagreement that plagues both education and hockey in Ontario, I’ve decided to air this re-run of a piece I wrote during the 2010 NHL season — you know, back when the Leafs were still playing and the Teacher’s Pension Fund was in the owner’s seat.

I mean, who knows, we could be watching re-runs of hockey games on Hockey Night, the way we did in previous lockouts.

Oddly enough, this piece still holds as true today as it did a couple of years ago.

I dedicate this piece to hockey fans everywhere and to students across Ontario.

My Free Marketing Advice to CBC and the Toronto Maple Leafs

I'm not exactly sure what Phil Kessel has to smile about... Photo courtesy of Toronto Star.

I’m going to go on record here as saying that I don’t give a flying puck about the fate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At least not from a hockey standpoint.

On a purely economic front, well… They do capture a bit of my attention.

My wife, you see, is a teacher. And there is great financial benefit to her pension being tied to the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) cash cow. Sure, the Leafs can’t win on the ice, but they sure know how to boost an investment portfolio.

My feelings towards their on-ice product?

Let’s put it this way. During “Hockey Night in Canada,” I actively cheer for any one of the 29 teams not wearing blue and white on that given night.

When asked if I’m a Maple Leafs fan, I always reply, “No, I prefer to watch hockey.”

In my spare time, I marvel at the ability for Leafs fans to drink tea… with no Cups since ’67, after all…

I suppose, after some consideration, that my opening statement is a lie.

I do give a puck about the Leafs.

I do, though my sentiment is one of loathing rather than admiration. Contempt rather than compassion. I don’t think that hatred is too strong a word to use here.

“Whoa!” you may be thinking. “Whoa! This is pretty harsh language to be tossing around for the sake of a mere hockey team.”

Well, folks. I’ve got news for you. The Leafs are not a mere hockey team.

No, the Leafs are the reason that the bulk of Canada is forced to watch second tier, just slightly better than bush league hockey, week after week, every Saturday night of the entire NHL season. And why we’ve had to do so for decades.

If you’re a true hockey fan, you’ve pretty much got to hate that.

Sure, you don’t hate it in a Bin Laden, Margaret Wente, -43 wind-chill kind of way. But you hate it nonetheless. You hate the fact that an organization that is more concerned about selling condos than making the playoffs is the only option on Saturday night.

And you know what? You’re not alone. That hatred is starting to bubble to the surface. People are starting to get pretty darned sick of the whole “win one for the boardroom” mentality of Leaf ownership.

Want proof? Check out the comment sections of online Maple Leaf articles. Longtime fans are talking about boycotts. Longer time Leaf fans are claiming that they’ll never watch another game again.

And the comments from non-Leaf fans?

Pure venom.

Want further proof? If you watch a Leaf/Flames game at the Calgary Saddledome, some fans are actually cheering for the Flames.

It’s getting serious, I tell you.

Well, as serious as it gets for the owners of these perennial financial overachievers.

After all, no GTA-born adult Leaf fan is going to really boycott his beleaguered squad. It’s all blowing smoke. I mean, they’re the only ticket in town…

Even at the absolute worst of times, Toronto-based Leaf fans are loyal. They will continue to watch.

But what you just might see happening is a drying up of national-level merchandise sales. You might see fewer sales of Leaf jerseys, Leaf baseball caps, Leaf pajamas. You might see a hit to the entire MLSE line of NHL products. Who, after all, wants to buy a bobblehead of Grabovski? The guy is a walking bobblehead himself. And do you really want a Phil Kessel T-shirt? If you do, it better read “My other draft pick is Tyler Seguin.” Or, better yet, “My GM went to the entry draft, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

You may also see out-of-market fans tuning out. Sick of the losing, Ottawa fans may just begin to investigate that mystery team that plays out of the Scotiaband Centre.

Then there is the fact that fewer and fewer kids are following the Leafs. And why should they? All they have ever known about the Buds is that they are perennial also-rans. They’ve never had a reason to cheer.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s the case for most adults as well.

But I digress.

The fine folks at MLSE may not be taking a huge hit currently. There are still people paying to get into games. And there are still people watching on TV (even if those numbers are starting to shrink).

But they can’t count on this forever. They are losing their young audience. And they are losing their ability to hold the attention of the nation. Actually, truth be told, they might still have national attention, just not of the positive variety.

In short, the dollars, in the not-to-distant future, might become a bit harder to come by.

There is, I believe, a solution to this situation.

There is, I believe, a way to right the good ship Maple Leaf – and, yes, it does eventually involve winning.

There is a way to ease the suffering of Leaf fans and non-Leaf fans alike.

And it is a simple one:

Yank them off of Hockey Night in Canada.

Pull the plug. End the free ride.

You see, there’s a reason why the Leafs have fans in every community in Canada (and it sure as heck isn’t because of their long-reaching history of incompetence). There is a reason why there is a sea-to-shining sea Leaf nation. There is a reason why they have such a large audience to lose – as they are so magnificently doing.

They are, you see, the beneficiaries of CBC coddling. They are the beloved of both Hockey Night in Canada and the brass of CBC sports. They are the darlings of our national public broadcaster.

How good a job does the CBC do of making the Leafs Canada’s team? Put it this way: The rest of the nation hates the city of Toronto, but watches the Leafs.

Enough said.

But this love is not a tough love. This love is unconditional and, sadly, unreasonable. This is a destructive love.

The more the CBC coddles the Leafs, the more the Leafs are going to continue to, well, suck.

Why would they do otherwise? The Leafs get the best marketing that money can buy without actually having to pay for it. They are rewarded with national media recognition for merely showing up, acting like pylons, and watching teams skate around them. Why should their management concern themselves with success when they have a government-owned marketing machine that ensures financial revenue, no matter their place in the standings?

I hate to say it, but the CBC are enablers. They are enabling the Maple Leafs to wallow in the depths of the NHL standings. They are bad, bad parents.

And the worst of it is that they are only hurting themselves. If the slow decline – and not very rosy future – of the Leafs is apparent, so too is the effect on Hockey Night in Canada ratings. When people start turning off the Leafs, they start turning off the CBC.

And that, I think, is just plain wrong.

And so my solution: relegate the Leafs to a regional game. Take away their free marketing.

In the same way that Ottawa only gets seen by Ottawa-area viewers, and Montréal only gets seen by Quebec viewers, give the Leafs to a GTA-only audience.

For the cross-country match? Well, give it to whoever is worthy of it.

Right now, Montréal is fighting for first place in the Eastern Conference. First place. I’m willing to bet there are a lot of Canadians willing to watch a rematch of last season’s Habs/Penguins or Habs/Capitals tilts during this year’s run to the playoffs. Reward the Canadiens with national recognition. Let Canada celebrate their success. And let the Habs reap the economic rewards of being shown coast-to-coast-to-coast. I’m willing to bet the ratings would be similar to that of the weekly Leaf drubbing.

At the same time, the sad-sack Maple Leafs would lose their magical marketing miracle. They would have to fight for the attention of hockey fans across Canada. They would actually have to (gulp) consider winning.

The minute you take away the financial security blanket from MLSE’s hockey operations is the minute that you will find a cure for the symptoms of safe mediocrity that currently grips both the Toronto Maple Leafs and, as a result, Hockey Night in Canada. The tough love would push both parties into a healthier relationship.

You just might be surprised at what happens. The Leafs might find that extra gear needed to make it to the playoffs, to a regular spot on the new earn-your-coverage national broadcast. They might stop giving away their first-round draft picks and young guns. They might start thinking hockey first.

And Hockey Night might benefit from having winning teams play on Saturdays. There might be a national re-investment in the future of our sport.

There are no losers here. Only winners.

Particularly for those of us who give a puck about hockey.

* * *

For more hockey writing, please see:
Holy Night in Canada: A Toast to the Return of Hockey
“…Hockey, in a way that great religions often aspire to, acts as a leveler of people. It gives a commonality. I have seen Native kids practicing on frozen fields in the Prairies. I’ve watched a skinny Asian kid trying to raise his wrist shot off the ice, over and over again, against the boards of Moss Park Arena in the crumbling heart of Toronto. I’ve seen exhilaration personified as a 12-year-old girl stick-handled alone under the shadow of Victoria glacier on the frozen emerald surface of Lake Louise. On the ice, they are all just players.”

On Sidney Crosby and Fan Backlash
“…Do I think that the media can tone it down a notch? Of course I do. Focusing solely on one player takes away from the game. Daily Crosby headlines mean that other stories are not told. Crosby-cams distract from the sport as much as the glowing puck of FOX Broadcasts once did.”

Ron MacLean and My Hometown
“One year, I believe it was right before the Hockey Night in Canada playoffs, Ron Maclean came to stay at the Lake Louise Inn, where I was working (and sometimes supervising) the front desk. This was way back in ’96 or ’97 — so don’t expect me to get all the details right.”

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