When considering optimal matchups for a championship settings, one must take into account several different elements. These elements include intriguing storylines, favorable market statistics and recognizable superstars. For the NHL, a Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Final seemingly checks all of the boxes.
One storyline that sells particularly well in American sports is the idea of an “underdog.” As mentioned in my evaluation of the “Big Baller Brand,” this common theme can be traced back to the formation of the United States.
This is why Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago were embraced with open arms. Or why the David vs. Goliath-like Super Bowl that matched – quite possibly – the greatest quarterback of all-time against an overlooked backup quarterback was so intriguing.
The Golden Knights are just the second expansion team in NHL history to reach the Stanley Cup Final in their first season.
In the preseason, hockey experts around the world predicted Vegas to be abysmal, and who could blame them? A roster filled with castaway third and fourth-liners would never be expected to have a successful season. Even Vegas’ owner, Bill Foley, anticipated the organization to be “pretty good” in three years and “make a run in five or six.”
They made a run in one.
The Golden Knights have embraced this underdog role by boastfully sporting the nickname “Golden Misfits.” They’ve also become a tremendous source of strength for a hurting city in the aftermath of an October shooting.
While it’s tough to consider the Washington Capitals an underdog while possessing one of the greatest offensive players in NHL history, a reasonable argument can be built.
The Capitals – and according to several media members: Alexander Ovechkin – religiously underperformed in the playoffs for nearly a decade, and arguably throughout its entire existence. NBC’s airing of the Capitals’ second-round defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins became an annual expectation, like ABC’s airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Yet this season, they did the unthinkable and defeated the two-time defending champions. They even overcame series deficits in all three of their matchups to get to this point.
Some old-school hockey fans may prefer more traditional combatants from seasoned markets. Recent matchups – such as Detroit/Pittsburgh, Philadelphia/Chicago, Boston/Vancouver, and Boston/Chicago – satisfy this ideology. All of the aforementioned matchups provided legendary moments and tragic heartbreaks that will endure eternally.
Yet as I wrote last season when the Nashville Predators were in the Stanley Cup Final, there is tremendous upside, not just for the NHL, but for the sport of hockey in general, when nontraditional markets have the opportunity to embrace the sport at its most competitive level.
Though Las Vegas is only the 40th largest media market in the United States according to Nielsen, this market was completely untapped just a year ago. A galvanized city that’s never had a professional sports team is receiving quite the crash course in the most exhilarating tournament in all of sports. There are young children living in Nevada who are undoubtedly falling in love with the sport of hockey as the Golden Knights continue their run, a phenomenon that would have never occurred just a year ago. This is great for hockey and the league.
The Washington D.C. market offers a nice compliment to the smaller Las Vegas market. Ranking 7th, Washington fans will be able to cheer for a home team in a championship setting for the first time since 1998.
While Washington is not the most rabid sports fanbase, the NHL will more than likely be pleased with the local ratings it will receive from both markets. And the national ratings should be high as well, considering the previously mentioned storylines.
Hockey is arguably the ultimate team sport and both teams possess highly skilled and marketable players. This includes the Capitals’ Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom, and the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre “Flower” Fleury and William “Wild Bill” Karlsson.
Yet the importance, recognition and marketability of these players do not even compare to that of Alexander Ovechkin.
For years, the NHL has tried to market both Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby as the faces of the league. Crosby has more than lived up to that billing on-the-ice, but has never came close off-the-ice.
Prior to this season, Ovechkin never made it past the second round. Yet off-the-ice, he’s been much more marketable than his Pittsburgh adversary.
Ovechkin graced the cover of EA Sports’ NHL video game. Crosby has not.
Ovechkin has an Instagram account with over 1 million followers and a Twitter account with over 2 million followers. Crosby has zero social media presence.
Ovechkin has starred in a classic “This is SportsCenter” commercial. Crosby has not.
Ovechkin shows personality and emotion with flamboyant celebrations and All-Star Weekend foolery (shown below), paired with unique and recognizable equipment characteristic like baggy shorts, yellow laces and a tinted visor.
Ovechkin also gets love from Lil Wayne… which is pretty awesome.
This isn’t a slight to Crosby – though as a Flyers fan you can imagine my personal opinion on the man. But for a sport that lacks recognition, star-power and universal appeal, it is incredibly important to maximize the on and off-ice potential of your transcendent talents.
With the Capitals in the Stanley Cup, the NHL finally gets to promote Ovi/The Great Eight/Alexander the Great on the game’s biggest stage.