Thought experiment: go back to where we stood one year ago, at the beginning of 2012. The Lakers were the undisputed kings of LA, just a year removed from an NBA title. The Galaxy were champs of MLS. The Clippers and Kings were on the rise, but neither had truly staked their claim as a legitimate contender. USC wiped the floor with UCLA (again) in football, while both schools had declined in basketball. The Ducks were last in the Western Conference. And the Dodgers and Angels were both considered contenders but needed to back it up.
By the summer, the Clippers and Lakers had been knocked out in Round 2 after successful seasons. The Dodgers had the best record in baseball, while the Angels were middle-of-the-pack. UCLA basketball and USC football were generating buzz, while their counterparts were still hoping for better times. The Galaxy struggled. The Ducks missed the playoffs.
Oh, and the Kings won the Cup. The Kings were on top of the LA totem pole! Or at least, they were sharing it with the Lakers, who will continue to own the LA sports scene until Kobe retires, and probably for a long time after. But still! The buzz was with us.
You know what happened next: LOCKOUT. But something interesting happened while we were waiting to get back to the ice: the most prominent LA teams got worse, while the struggling ones got better. The Lakers are enduring a nightmarish season and are out of the playoffs, while the Clippers won 17 in a row and have the NBA's best record. The USC football team went from preseason #1 to unranked, while the UCLA football team narrowly missed a Rose Bowl berth and beat USC for the first time since 2006. Both MLB teams have continued spending like mad, but both missed the playoffs.
So the Kings return to action in the midst of a fluctuating sports scene. They lost momentum, but they didn't lose the opportunity to make Los Angeles pay attention; in fact, the battle for the city's affection isn't as difficult as it might seem. What needs to happen?
The Kings (much like the Galaxy) have a strong core fanbase which will fill up the stands, win or lose. But capturing the media and LA's casual sports fans is an entirely different task. Ask Bob Miller or Luc Robitaille; the Kings have owned LA during two periods of time. The first was when Wayne Gretzky came to town, and it continued through the magical 1993 playoffs as Gretzky put the team on his (injured) back. The second was the spring and summer of 2012. Winning, more than anything, keeps a Los Angeles team in the conversation. Despite the lockout, there was a clear impact from last year's Cup victory; doing it again puts the Kings into rare, and dominant, territory.
Back in January 2012, comedy website Funny or Die poked fun at the idea that the Kings were the furthest thing from celebrities in LA. But even before the Kings were champs, the team had started building its identity. The brash "The Time is Now" billboards and omnipresent bus ads ("It's Brown Time!"). The color change. Hell, even the Twitter account. The door opened further once the Cup came home, as players such as Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar, and Dustin Brown achieved name and face recognition. The Kings snapback hats and Championship gear have become a fairly regular sight in Southern California; now, the Kings have the ability to go beyond the brand and promote their individual stars.
The Kings' dominance would have captivated Los Angeles in any scenario, but it didn't hurt when both the Lakers and Clippers exited the playoffs in early May. While perhaps overshadowed on a larger scale by LeBron James and the Heat, the Kings were THE sports story out West, and that remained the case when neither the Dodgers nor the Angels made the postseason. Being the best team in California for a second year running might count on the Clippers being upset or an underachieving set of baseball teams. And whatever the Kings do this season actually WILL continue into a full season this time, so standing alone in Los Angeles would have more of a lasting impact.
With a late start, the NHL season will finish after the NBA season this year, offering a unique opportunity for professional hockey to stand alone during the Stanley Cup Finals. NHL media guru Steve Lepore hosted a roundtable which has suggested a number of ways for the NHL to bounce back from a media standpoint; an exciting season will help the Kings immensely, while apathy will set the Kings back.
It's already begun...
Thursday's press conference revealed a couple of steps the Kings have already taken to win over fans. Observe a new sponsorship deal with McDonald's which will should increase the Kings' visibility, as well as donations to local charities and promotions to reward the fans. And that's to say nothing of continued cross-promotion with the Dodgers, a stronger Twitter presence by the team's players (and plenty of chirping), and a significant boost in national TV coverage on the NBC networks and the NHL Network. But time will tell whether the Kings can capitalize on an interesting situation and a strong team. Come June, our hockey team might be languishing in obscurity, or they might just be LA's newest craze... again.