Early TV and attendance numbers suggest that fans have started returning to the NHL, a development that has allowed league Commissioner Gary Bettman to breathe a sigh of relief. Bettman told THE DAILY yesterday, "We could be hopeful all we wanted, but we didn't take anything for granted. We are grateful and we are excited." NBC saw its highest regular-season TV audiences (excluding the Winter Classic) for its opening games on Saturday, and all local NHL ratings posted a collective 32% increase versus the same number of games at the start of last season. Bettman, who has been to four games in five nights, credited the NHL clubs with effectively reaching out to the fans. "We really thought that it was most important initially that the fans reconnect with their teams," he said. "We took out ads in every market nationally in Canada and the U.S. But we thought it was more important initially that all of our efforts be focused on backstopping the clubs as they reached out." Bettman pointed to clubs' efforts to discount tickets, food and merchandise for helping draw a connection to the fans. "The major effort and focus we thought needed to be at the club level. So far, that seems to have been the right approach," he said. "All of our clubs have been doing special things in their markets and they've all been tailored to their fans and the reaction has been phenomenal, and we're grateful" (John Ourand, THE DAILY).
ICING ON THE CAKE: The AP's Dan Gelston wrote there is a "good deal to be found in the NHL," as teams continue to offer "slashed prices and freebies" to fans as a thank you for sticking by the sport through the lockout. Penguins C Sidney Crosby said, "I think it's great to see that we're still getting the turnout that we're getting." Gelston: "Maybe it helped the league said it was sorry." The NHL bought full-page ads in about 40 newspapers across the U.S. and Canada "thanking fans for their patience and apologizing for the lost games" (AP, 1/23). In Illinois, Mike Imrem writes the lockout was "supposed to turn off fans for good this time." Those watching "at home, many of them casual hockey fans at best, were the ones expected to forget about this game." But those in the media were "wrong in projecting gloom and doom for the NHL." The lockout was "a positive for the league as it tries to gain ground on the NFL, MLB and NBA" (Illinois DAILY HERALD, 1/24).
THE KID IS ALRIGHT: Many Maple Leafs players last night before their game against the Penguins said that Crosby's presence during CBA negotiations "was a significant factor in getting a deal done." Leafs RW Joffrey Lupul said, "When you have the face of your sport working hard, trying to get something done, I think everybody notices. It meant a lot to all of us." In Pittsburgh, Josh Yohe notes no NHLer has "publicly questioned Crosby, even though he aligned himself with an owner." Rather, Crosby's work "seems to have inspired many." Leafs LW James Van Riemsdyk: "I think you can honestly say that what he did was appreciated by everyone" (PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 1/24).
The USGA is "undergoing the kind of awakening that comes with fresh leadership and an urgent crisis," according to Jaime Diaz of GOLF WORLD. USGA Exec Dir Mike Davis said, "There is a consensus that the way the game exists today can't sustain itself. The questions are huge. 'What is the game going to be like for our kids and grandkids?' There are so many problems to solve, and I look around and wonder, 'If we don't do it, who will?' It has to be us." Diaz writes rather than govern "benignly and often mysteriously, Davis is determined that his regime will be transparent, communicative, responsible and sometimes even bold." The most recent demonstration "is the pending ban on anchoring." Davis said, "I tell our people, let's not be like the federal government, where too many politicians are not willing to do what's right for the country because it might not be good for them. Let's not make expedient short-term decisions." Diaz writes USGA President Glen Nager is a "classic Mr. Inside with a specialty in corporate and managerial organization." Nager wanted his two years as president to be "partnered with a golf-savvy executive director who could be the game's Mr. Outside." Nager said, "Mike lives and breathes the game and has a selflessness about doing the right thing people quickly sense. That gives him enormous credibility as a leader." Davis said, "When it comes to non-golf things, I'm not your person. I'm not a business person or a marketing person."
ALWAYS BE PREPARED: Diaz notes Nager is "sensitive to charges that the association lost its way looking for funding through measures like partnering with companies such as American Express, Lexus and Chevron." The USGA has a $274M investment portfolio for "possible legal battles and emergency funds in case something like a natural disaster threatens the staging of the U.S. Open." It has separate deals with NBC, ESPN, Golf Channel and "international outlets to broadcast its championships, generating a combined" $40M a year. Nager said, "What we are trying to do is make sure that we have the resources to invest in the game of golf. Our investment portfolio is not there to make anyone wealthy. It's there so that when we have to make a move when somebody challenges us, we have the resources to defeat them, to put it bluntly" (GOLF WORLD, 1/28 issue).
CHARTING HIS COURSE: GOLFWEEK's Adam Schupaknotes PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua is "just settling in to his new role, and said he is in the early stages of developing a strategic plan." For now, Bevacqua is "content to listen, learn and formulate a long-term strategy." Yet he "isn't shy when discussing his interest in returning the PGA Championship to the West Coast" (GOLFWEEK, 1/25 issue). SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL's Michael Smith this week profiles Bevacqua in a front-page piece. Bevacqua in his first two months since replacing Joe Steranka has "brought a loose and relaxed approach to the PGA of America’s top job" (SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL, 1/21 issue).
A partnership announced yesterday between MLS and third-tier division USL Pro is a "much-needed arrangement that promises to improve MLS’ long-term player development,” according to Steven Goff of the WASHINGTON POST. The partnership this year will include interleague play between USL Pro and MLS Reserve League teams, and the establishment of several exclusive team affiliations, a move prompted byMLS’ “inadequate reserve league.” Many young MLS players for years “have languished without practical experience.” An MLS club participating in the program under the new system “will send at least four players to a USL affiliate on a long-term loan.” With only 13 USL sides, not all 19 MLS clubs will have a USL affiliate. But “remaining reserve teams will play two games against a USL club, with the results counting in the reserve division and USL standings.” DC United is “expected to partner with the Richmond Kickers and withdraw from the reserve league.” Sporting KC has “already announced a deal with Orlando City” (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 1/23). SPORTING NEWS' Brian Straus wrote, “One day, the launch of the partnership between MLS and the United Soccer Leagues might be regarded as significant a milestone in the rise of the American pro game as the advent of the soccer-specific stadium or the designated-player rule that brought David Beckham to LA.” But for now it “raises more questions than answers, and the principals acknowledge there’s more to come in years ahead.” What is certain “is that some kind of link between MLS and a minor league was necessary.” But affiliation "is not, and likely never will be, mandatory and four partnerships will be in place in 2013” (SPORTINGNEWS.com, 1/23). GOAL.com's Kyle McCarthy wrote, "Let us see how the MLS/USL PRO partnership actually functions before assessing its success or its utility. Encouraging step, though" (TWITTER.com, 1/23).