Monday, October 1, 2007

The Ice-cream Theory of Hockey Economics

Tried buying an ice-cream lately? Not the satisfying scoops from a real parlour but from one of those freezers in the local corner store when you've got the urge and there's no other option.

You can't get a simple ice-cream sandwich or bar anymore. There are only the deluxe offerings to be had. Tiramisu flavoured with multiple layers rammed full of nuts, whipped cream, chocolate and syrup. There's even some ice-cream in there as well. Oh wait, they do have ice-cream bars. The only problem is that the chocolate is of such a high quality that it overwhelms the ice-cream, which you can barely taste. I don't care about the price. I want a simple, non-deluxe ice-cream bar that doesn't make me want to puke because it's so rich.

Businesses have to constantly expand their product lines and diversify so as to meet that universal goal of expansion. Individuals, commercial enterprises and governments are all the same. To not expand every year is to be a failure. (Which makes the belief that we can somehow save the environment an insanely amusing notion. At least the environmental charity industry is increasing their annual profits.)

Advertisers often play on people’s sense of status. How any new product or service may be a jolt to someone’s ego and affect their sense of rank is often more important than the real quality of what is offered. The standard is so low nowadays with so many wanting to convince themselves that they are part of the wealthy elite that a kind of ersatz luxury is the result. Dreary, humourless acceptance by most people is the standard reaction to such products. Hey, all the insanity and the 70 hour work weeks are worth it because I've been recognized and provided with such a choice. Might as well indulge.

No industry is unaffected, even education. The proliferation of new, money spinning streams for all sorts of educational institutes seems to be an obsession. Universities now trot out new master's degree programs which are accompanied by all the hype, spinning and marketing of a new video game console. Anyone and everyone is eligible as long as they can cough up the required tuition. In many cases the benefits to the eager middle-aged students are worthwhile but just as often the programs are irrelevant and unrecognized.

The price of a hockey ticket has gone up at a rate far greater than inflation over the past 20 years or so, as it has with the price of admission for most other professional sports and high-end live entertainment such as concerts. Supply and demand explains away the basics of such increases but look a bit closer and you'll see some of the ice-cream theory at work. Those 100 dollar tickets have got to be justified beyond…well, beyond the game on the ice.

Many teams now offer an all you can eat section where for a premium price you can plug your guts with as much arena grub as possible. You may miss most of the game standing in line with your special grease-stained pass but you’ll go home with a belly full of food and the knowledge that your experience was that much better than most of the other chumps in attendance. That old line may even get a re-working and turn into: “I went to a gluttonous orgy of self-indulgence and a hockey game broke out!”

Luxury boxes are at another level altogether as the name suggests. But some teams, led by the Philadelphia Flyers, are converting the area formerly reserved for the now redundant goal judges into premium seats with waitress service.

You can already purchase wine at more than a few NHL arenas and sip from your glass while watching the distractions on the flashing jumbotron overhead.

If there isn’t already, no doubt there will soon be internet access available at seats for those who wish to bring their laptops to games and show others how uninterested they are in the action on the ice. Would they sacrifice the hardware or would they take one in the face to save it from a stray puck?

The opportunities abound for any potential new franchise that may end up in Las Vegas. Laying a bet from your seat or getting serviced in altogether different ways are potential options.

As for me, when (if) I finally return to North America, I think I’ll settle in a nice medium sized burg and find a minor league team whose games I can watch live while supporting the NHL from a comfortable distance. At least the smaller barns which are home to many an entertaining hockey team still offer the equivalent of the ice-cream sandwich: an uncomfortable plastic-backed chair where you can watch the game amongst a couple of hundred other fans interested in nothing more than the battle taking place on the ice.

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