Sutcliffe: Karlsson more valuable to Senators than a Stanley Cup

When the Ottawa Senators lost Erik Karlsson for the rest of the season, it wasn’t just a devastating blow to the team’s playoff chances, but a huge setback for its marketing efforts.

When the Ottawa Senators lost Erik Karlsson for the rest of the season, it wasn’t just a devastating blow to the team’s playoff chances, but a huge setback for its marketing efforts.

Karlsson isn’t just someone who helps the Senators score goals and win hockey games. He’s a member of an exclusive group of players who are so exciting to watch that fans buy tickets just to see them play.

Unfortunately for the Senators, Karlsson’s injury came just as his brand was building to a crescendo. In the days leading up to that fateful game in Pittsburgh, observers around the league were praising the young defenceman’s dominant play in Ottawa’s first dozen games.

The consensus was that Karlsson’s game had improved even over his Norris Trophy season last year and that his qualities put him in rare company. Comparisons had already started to Hall of Famers like Orr, Bourque and Coffey.

Indeed, during the intermission right before Karlsson suffered his injury, television commentators were debating whether he was the best overall player in the entire league so far this season. All of this attention could have created an expanding windfall for the Senators, as more fans seized the rare opportunity to witness a rising young superstar in action. The marketing opportunity couldn’t have been better timed, with lots of tickets to sell on short notice following the lockout.

Matt Cooke’s left skate has ended all of that, for now. But if Karlsson makes a full recovery and returns to the same level of play this fall (wearing thicker socks), the Senators have a chance to capitalize on his value for a long time.

A superstar can be worth as much as, or more than, a Stanley Cup to a hockey franchise. Even for a dominant team, a championship is not a certainty. The playoffs are long and difficult and the favourite doesn’t always triumph. Even for those teams that do win, in a league with increasing parity, Cup titles are usually few and far between.

But barring injuries, a star player can be a constant presence for a decade or longer, a reason to buy tickets in good years and bad. Here’s one example: In the 10 seasons before Cal Ripken’s rookie year in Baltimore, the Orioles drew an average of 15,931 fans per game. During his career they averaged 35,455. Since he retired, average attendance has dropped to 27,353.

The Orioles won the World Series in Ripken’s rookie season. That probably contributed to the bump in attendance. But they have never returned to the Fall Classic since. So the increase — of almost 20,000 fans per game — likely had much more to do with seeing the Iron Man during his streak than the performance of the team.

Across sports, free agency dramatically increased player movement and reduced the number of players who, like Ripken, spent their entire careers with one club. But now, the NHL’s new financial structure increases the likelihood of retaining a superstar for a long period of time, if not his entire career. With a maximum salary per player and a minimum payroll per team, small market hockey franchises are far less likely to lose a bidding war for their top homegrown talent. Cleveland couldn’t keep CC Sabathia or LeBron James. But the Penguins are likely to retain Sidney Crosby for his entire career. Likewise, Ottawa will have a strong chance at keeping Karlsson.

Building a powerful brand in team sports is about more than just winning, it’s about creating a pantheon of stars over generations. In an ideal world, of course, a team will have both the superstars and the championships, particularly since each contributes to the other. Derek Jeter has joined the long list of Yankee legends who have led the team to several championships. He’s helped the team win and the championships have lifted his status to the level of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. Until 20 years ago, there was a similar winning hockey tradition in Montreal.

But while championships give a bump to a franchise, a player like Karlsson can be a lucrative asset with a consistent and sustained rate of return. Greatness is something that people want to witness in person, not just on their television screens. Karlsson doesn’t just score goals and rack up points, he’s thrilling to watch. What hockey fan wouldn’t relish the opportunity to see him live, tracking him even when he’s off-screen, without the puck? Crosby has almost single-handedly restored the Penguins franchise and helped them build a new arena.

Karlsson isn’t there yet, but he’s certainly on the verge of joining that rare echelon. As proof, look at the community’s reaction to his injury. The level of scrutiny devoted to his surgery was almost equivalent to a medical procedure performed on a U.S. president.

It’s a shame we’ll have to wait another six months for the legend to continue to build. But despite his emergence as a superstar being placed on hold, there is still much to look forward to from Erik Karlsson, for both fans and the people who market the franchise.

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