You're a huge sports fan. You've collected Mark Messier's autograph, Steve Yzerman's autograph and even have a puck signed by Bryan Leetch. Your best friend can only manage to get a jersey signed by Tyrone Corbin, a program with Harvey Grant's signature and a wristband with Olden Polynice's name on it.
Yet you have to sit idly by with dust collecting on your collections while your best friend's continues to cash in on what appears to you to be unknown memorabilia with unknown names.
Welcome to the world of the National Hockey League vs. the National Basketball Association.
Sure, the two professional leagues have a lot in common. Both are played in the winter -- although the playoffs seem to stretch to the days right before the start of summer; both have added more than a half dozen expansion teams in the 1990s and both have players in their mid 30s who are considered to be the best of all time in their respective sports (Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan).
But that's where the similarities end and the differences -- huge differences -- begin to appear.
The NHL has been a league stuck in the 50s while the NBA has marketed itself to be the sport of the 90s. While the NHL has promoted its product as if Ike was in the White House, the NBA has been as fast paced as an Ike and Tina Turner review. Casual fans can name at least one or two players on every NBA team; few know even the elite on a professional hockey franchise.
That is why collectors who have stored up on NBA trinkets -- and there are thousands of them out there -- have invested wisely while those hockey die-hards who have stuck with NHL heroes have been frozen out of the competitive market.
Much of it has been attitude. The NHL remembers the days when there were just six franchises that regularly sold out arenas and played before national television audiences. When the NHL finally expanded in 1967, it doubled its number of teams and started to invade American markets. But as it expanded, it started going head-to-head against cities with NBA teams. At first, the NHL fared well -- in some cases driving out the established NBA team (e.g., St. Louis, Buffalo) or at least holding its own with the NBA (Philadelphia, Washington).
But the NBA had several weapons working for their resurgence beginning in the late 1970s. First, it placed David Stern as its commissioner, a marketing whiz who knew the game had a wider appeal and could merchandise its way to the hearts of fans. He started slapping NBA logos on everything and, coupled with the entry of superstars like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson (and five years later, Jordan), he developed a gold mine. Jerseys, pennants, basketballs and just about anything with the NBA logo on it became a hot seller on the market. Coupled with widespread television exposure -- Stern guided the league away from CBS( which had even been tape delaying NBA finals games)) onto NBC and cable (TBS, then TNT), and got even more national and international attention to the game.
Hockey had its infusion of great talent about the same time -- Gretzky from the World Hockey Association, Messier, Mario Lemieux and Marcel Dionne -- but lacked the promotional and merchandising savvy in its leaders. William Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, led a group that steadfastly believed the way they did business in the 50s was the way to do business in the 80s and 90s. Weak commissioners, antiquated marketing philosophies and a woeful track record on television caused the NHL to fall light years behind the NBA in terms of popularity, merchandising and collectibles.
There was a glimmer of light when the powers-that-be elected to sign on with fledgling ESPN in the early 80s, but the NHL unwisely left the network and joined a smaller operation of Sportschannel stations that limited its exposure and appeal. When new commissioner Gary Bettman (recruited from the NBA league's front office) took over he saw the light and got back on ESPN and even negotiated a limited contract with Fox which pales in comparison to the millions of dollars NBA teams enjoy from the NBC-Turner package.
The NBA also followed the lead of Major League Baseball and the National Football League by carefully screening what products earned the official NBA insignia, ensuring quality products and preventing cheaper rip-off products. As of this date, the NHL lacks a similar licensing organization that has the same clout as the NBA.
The NBA was able to stabilize its franchises with the added money from TV, merchandising and collecting. The NHL, meanwhile, saw teams flee strong local hockey towns like Minneapolis, Winnipeg and Quebec for the more southern locales and saw other teams shift from Hartford to North Carolina where attendance has been embarrasingly low this season.
Critics argue the NBA will come back to the pack -- and be on a more level court -- with the NHL once superstars like Jordan, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, all in their mid 30s, decide to retire. But in their place are superstars to be like Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill and Kevin Garnett. The NHL has already lost Lemeiux to retirement, Gretzky and Messier are nearing the ends of their careers. Their may be quality players to take their place but only the real die-hards have ever heard of them. In fact, fans in their own cities would be hard pressed to name the No. 1 lines on their own teams, let alone a rival. And with new teams like Columbus and Nashville set to come in to the league the anonymity is likely to grow.
Until the NHL takes a more aggressive stand on merchandising, recognizes the huge potential in collectables and gets a bigger national television contract, it will remain in the winter professional sports' penalty box.