The State of the RHI
By Dean Shutt
Well it's June again and that means it's time for me and the other three guys in America who love Roller Hockey International to get excited. Four months of speed, power and grace for us to enjoy. Yes, the RHI is cranking it up for another season. This year the league has been restructured and will boast just ten teams down from eighteen last season. The folks in charge say that they are just trying to stabilize the ownership group and that the league is healthy. I for one hope that is true because I would miss professional Roller Hockey.
Roller Hockey is not one of the pseudo-sports that seem to be competing to feast on the carcass of Major League Baseball. It seems that in the last few years, as baseball's popularity has waned, a new summer sport has come along every year. Indoor Soccer, Major League Soccer, Women's Basketball, Arena Football and Roller Hockey are all competing with baseball for the summer entertainment dollar. Perhaps that's the problem. All of the other summertime sports are derivatives of already popular Leagues. Even Arena Football can claim some resemblance to the NFL. The RHI on the other hand is based on a sport that is just now becoming popular in this country. Ice hockey is light-years ahead of where it was just a few years ago; still it is definitely the smallest of the big four spectator sports. When attempting to market their teams, RHI clubs are forced to overcome the resistance to the sport itself before they can even think of selling their team. To be fair, soccer has faced many of the same problems. However, soccer has the luxury of having had a year-long commercial in the form of the World Cup before they started their latest league. The RHI has had to build it's sport on it's own.
This is not to say that the RHI has not made mistakes in it's campaign to bring roller hockey to the masses. Though they started with just a few teams and a short, economical season, they soon fell prey to expansion bug. The league swelled to it's all-time high of twenty-four teams in just a few years. Unfortunately, fan interest could not sustain that many teams. Perhaps more importantly, the diluted ownership could not afford the lengthy campaign that a 24 team league entailed.
Another miscue on the part of the vast majority of the league's teams was their choice of Arenas as venues. While drawing three thousand fans to brand new sport is fairly impressive, put those fans in a 17,000 seat arena and the turnout looks pathetic.
This also ensures that teams will have to discount their ticket prices, angering season ticket holders. A wiser course would have been to find or even build their own smaller venues. This way the team gets more revenues and the game experience is more exciting. Much better to have 3,000 fans in a 5,000 seat arena than have 6,000 fans in a 20,000 seat building.
Perhaps the biggest mistake the RHI made was in not fully appreciating the power of advertising. When you are building a sport from the ground up, you must do anything possible to get your team and your league in the public's eye. This means not only paid advertising but grassroots work as well. Setting up charitable funds, giving clinics and staging tournaments are all ways to introduce the public to the team and the sport.
Now that I have spent the better part of this column telling you what is wrong with the RHI, let me tell you what is right with it. The game itself is the most exciting sport you will ever see. I grew up playing and watching ice hockey and to be honest I would rather watch a roller hockey game any day of the week. The creators of this sport have eliminated some of the things that tend turn off the casual fan. They have eliminated the blue lines, thereby all but doing away offsides calls and completely removing the two-line pass rule. They have taken a skater per side off of the rink, opening up the game even more.
Professional Roller Hockey is fast, exciting and high scoring. Even though much of ice hockey's fighting has been eliminated, roller hockey is far more hardhitting than all but the most brutal ice hockey games. In short, join me and the other three guys and come out to an RHI game this season. If you like hockey at all you will absolutely love this sport.