Tuesday, December 12, 2006

THE NEW NHL: UN-HIP AND UN-WATCHED

Well, the numbers are in and we know now what a big hit this new and improved NHL is. It isn't.

Last night, Bob McCown and the rest of the gang on Prime Time Sports were ranting and raving about the disasterous television ratings for NHL games on most of these local cable networks in the United States. They were saying that the ratings were up in only two markets: Pittsburgh and Chicago. Everywhere else, the ratings were either flat or down.

Tony Gallagher in the Vancouver Province wrote a big piece this weekend about all this. He was writing about how the NHL governors were taking this ratings news at their meetings in Palm Beach, Florida. The governors must have been gagging and choking on their coffee, digesting the numbers from FSN, Comcast, MSG and the other local cable networks. In Florida, ratings were off 77% for the Panthers. In Detroit, ratings were off 50% for the Red Wings. In Atlanta, where they actually had a good team for once, ratings dipped for the Thrashers. Same story in New York, with ratings down for all the local teams. And on and on.

This is just more bad news for a league that is having big attendance problems in places like St. Louis, where the Blues have registered the largest attendance decline of any team in the league. No doubt the run of the St. Louis Cardinals may have had something to do with it early on. But still, you would think that fans in St. Louis would be so jazzed-up over a baseball championship that they'd want to pack the arenas and give all the other teams in town a lift. But instead, every time you see a Blues game on TV you get to see all those empty seats at the arena, too.

The general reaction from the hockey pundits in Canada is general bewilderment at the non-interest in the "new NHL" and all the great changes that have gone on with the game. They point to the great attendances and TV ratings throughout Canada and they declare that Americans simply hate hockey, that they don't get it, and on and on. The sense you get is that the Canadian pundits think Americans must be complete idiots to refuse to embrace the wonderful, exciting sport of hockey with all the exciting changes going on.

Maybe Americans aren't so stupid, though.

It's pretty easy to figure out why Americans have turned on the sport. It has to do with that new policy that the NHL brought in. You know, that policy of not holding any hockey games at all for an entire year and cancelling the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Out of sight, out of mind. In a competitive sports environment like the United States, locking out your players and cancelling an entire season was a sure-fire way to turn mainstream sports fans off of your game. Maybe it's Canadians that are the fools, going ga-ga over a sport that took the biggest European vacation in sports history two years ago. And Canadians simply forgive and forget about that, mainly because there is no other real sporting alternative in this country to rival the National Hockey League.

Canadians may be a captive audience for "our game", but the American sports fan is a different breed of cat. There's intense competition for the sports fans' attention down there and American fans are a lot more cynical, and more careful about where they spend their entertainment dollars. They have seen it all from these players, with free agency and crybaby tactics, and strikes and lockouts and the rest of it. If they get burned enough times, they'll change the channel and help put a sport out of business. Just because Americans put up with a lot of nonsense from baseball players, with all their labour disputes and steroids, doesn't mean they will put up with it from other sports. Not even ones that come back claiming to be all cleaned-up, new, and improved.

When the NHL returned, they hyped up their return as this great revamping and revitalization of the sport of hockey. They brought in big rule changes designed to eliminate the trapping style of play and produce more wide-open play and more scoring. So what.

Maybe the NHL could get away with passing off the return of the NHL as a brand-new, improved, revitalized game among hockey-addicted Canadians. But in the meanwhile, Americans had become NBA fans, or tuned into more NASCAR races, or spent the spring watching baseball games instead of the Stanley Cup. Moreover, it seems that the rule changes may be turning off Americans fans used to the old NHL: the rock-em-sock-em style of hockey promoted by Don Cherry and other adherents. The old joke used to be "I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out." The new joke is: "I went to a basketball game and a hockey game broke out", because it seems like there's more fighting and violence in the NBA these days than in the cleaned up, "new NHL". North of the border, fans have bought into the rule changes and the crackdown by officials. The fighting and the tough checking has been noticably reduced in this new NHL with the rule changes, penalties and the like. But a backlash has started. Sports commentators on radio and TV in places like Detroit are now going on the air to complain about the lack of fighting and the lack of toughness in the league. People are getting sick of all the penalties getting called. Maybe these rule changes are a big hit north of the border, but the NHL is finding out the hard way that plenty of fans in the United States go to hockey games to see rough and tough play--- and they are voting with their feet.

But then again, people were voting with their feet the whole time that the New Jersey Devils were putting fans to sleep with their trapping style of hockey. It was the success of their godawful trap that forced the NHL to make these rule changes in the first place. Fans were already turned off, or turning off, before these rule changes were even implemented. Instead of coming back to the game, these fans simply lost interest and stopped coming to games or watching TV.

Which brings us to ESPN. The end of the ESPN cable deal has dealt another blow to the NHL's reputation. Again, that infamous lockout deserves full blame for what happened. ESPN discovered they could get bigger ratings showing poker games on TV than hockey. So when the lockout ended ESPN told the NHL to take a hike.

The national TV deal the NHL has with Versus ( formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network ), cannot help matters. This network has a major image problem: it's seen as the place that all the less-popular niche sports wind up on. Ratings for the NHL are already way down from the ESPN days, and their hockey broadcasts on Mondays and Tuesdays are getting mowed down by stiff competition. Monday night was a prime example. Versus had on deck a prime matchup, Pittsburgh versus Washington, featuring two of the brightest up-and-coming stars of the league going head-to-head: the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin. This ought to have been something the NHL should have been able to go nuts over. They could have hyped it up like crazy.

But instead Versus showed the game on Monday night. And guess what the game had to go up against over on the NHL's former network ESPN.

That's right. The National. Football. League.

Which leads to another point that cannot be ignored. This out-of-sight, out-of-mind business that the NHL engaged in provided a major opening to all the other leagues to fill a major void and steal audiences. It is bad enough in St. Louis and Detroit that baseball dominated the entire month of October, but the National Football League has made major moves to increase its presence on Sundays and Thursday nights, making life miserable for the NHL on two of its biggest game nights. Monday night was always a big NFL night, but now the NFL has inaugurated a regular game on Thursdays on the NFL Network. The NFL is also making a major effort into turning Sunday night football telecasts into marquee matchups for NBC. The NFL is allowing NBC to pluck their best matchups from the afternoon schedule of games and show them in prime-time.

Add to that Saturday games and the promise of prime-time late-season matchups as well, including the playoffs, and that's four nights of the week where hockey broadcasts are sure to get mowed down by the NFL on TV. The NFL seems determined to make itself a prime-time presence all week during football season, not simply on the traditional Sunday afternoons. And that is all bad news for the NHL, which also has to contend with an increased NBA presence on ESPN and increased competition from NASCAR. And let's not forget pro wrestling. It's sad when you see bigger names and more fights on a WWE broadcast than an NHL broadcast, even if the blood spilled is just ketchup.

It's easy to say that the NHL ought to move its marquee games and matchups to a different night, to get out of the line of fire of these other sports. But what other night?! It almost seems as if the NHL will need to get a law passed to create an eight-day week in order to find a night free and clear for their games.

It's no wonder the NHL is having a hard time of it. Other sports have increased their presence on television, while the NHL was taking a big vacation and squandering what was left of its opportunity to establish itself as a major presence in American sporting culture. They had their one golden opportunity and they blew it.

You know, there was a point in time when the NHL had an opportunity to be the hip new thing. Back in the 1990s Sports Illustrated was running covers that claimed the "NHL is Hot" while the "NBA is Not". The NHL was on the air on the FOX Network and on ESPN and was seen as the hip new thing. It was back in the days when Mark Messier and the New York Rangers were hoisting the Stanley Cup, and the league was expanding into markets like Colorado, Dallas, Anaheim--- new markets that, in some cases, embraced the game and made it a hit. But a decade of labour strife and the "trap", and small-market Cup wins in distant, no-name burgs like Tampa Bay and Carolina have served to turn off what's left of the mainstream fans of the game everywhere.

Now, people tune in to poker on TV on all these channel, and they think that is the hip new thing. No wonder. Who wants to follow a sport like hockey where you have to look at a road map in order to find the place where they're showing the games?

What the NHL needs to do is work to get back on its feet, and make this sport fan-friendly again. They need to become the hip new thing again. With players like Sidney Crosby in the league they have a chance to do that, but it will take a lot of time and effort--- and more marketing savvy than what the league is displaying at the moment. It may take even further rule changes to restore more toughness to the game again. The bottom line is it will take time and a lot of effort.

Then maybe, just maybe, the fans will come back. And maybe the governors won't have to grab the antacids after looking at ratings numbers that are bad, bad, bad.

No comments: