Thursday, January 25, 2007

NHL: The Not-so-national Hockey League

There's no question that the NHL is suffering. While it has never been a dominant sport in America, I think it's fair to say that the league is losing ground.

Michael, of Army of the Ohio, has already addressed these issues somewhat, but I'd like to post my take on them too.

First and foremost, the lockout was devastating to the fans. Quite clearly, a league that doesn't play any games can't be watched. During the lockout, I'm sure a lot of would-be hockey fans found other places to get their sports fix. The NBA is as popular as ever, and the winter is saturated with college basketball- and this was also the beginnings of ESPN broadcasting the World Series of Poker. When the NHL came back, so many players had moved and so much time had passed that fewer fans were willing to just pick up where they left off. Despite being a CBJ fan since the Jackets were just a twinkle in McConnells' eye, I too had difficulty getting back into the swing of things. Players I had watched prior to the lockout were relocated, or in a few cases, missing entirely. Casual fans don't tolerate strikes and lockouts. They just find somewhere else to spend their time. I sure developed more of an interest in college football, NCAA basketball and baseball during this time. Today, hockey isn't so much national, as it is popular only in small pockets surrounding the teams.

The TV contract is a serious killer. If a fan wants to catch a game, but doesn't want to shell out $50 for tickets, their only choice is to catch it on tv. Granted, fox sports does a great job of covering just about every Jackets game, home and away, but what about non-hometown teams? And does Fox cover all of the NHL's games in their respective markets, or only a few? (If you have any insight, let me know in the comments.) I seldom tune into Versus to see who's playing on any given night. And to my experience, they don't advertise much on other channels, so I don't get drawn to Vs. unless the Jackets will be on. Essentially, I've watched one, maybe two, non-CBJ hockey games this season. It's hard to stay in tune with the league as a whole when it's not very convenient to catch out of market games. Compare that to NCAA or NFL football- a huge percentage of the games are broadcast nationwide.

The NHL needs to get back on ESPN at some level. Maybe not every game, but at least a few per season, and hopefully the All-Star game, maybe some playoffs. ESPN is de facto the television leader in sports. They not only air just about every sport, but cover it on SportsCenter, PTI, Around the Horn, and other sports pundit programs. You can be damn sure that the ESPN execs air a lot less coverage of NHL highlights, news, and events because they don't carry the league. Generating any sort of interest in hockey is of no benefit to ESPN- they stand to gain nothing by encouraging viewership of any means. It's far more valuable to them to cover stories of sports they air. The NHL needs to find a way back to ESPN. Even if it meant taking a less valuable deal, it may very well be worth it in the long run as more potential fans are exposed to the sport.

The NHL needs to start a big PR campaign to revitalize its fan base. I'm no PR guru, so I'm not going to illustrate a whole campaign, but I do think it needs to involve advertising on more popular channels. The NHL needs to do whatever it takes to regain viewers before the situation gets any more dire. I'm not sure Gary Bettman is up to the task of fixing the NHL. He's been the NHL commissioner since 1993. Since that time, the league may have expanded, teams have moved, and four clubs have filed for bankruptcy- but the last few years have brought some of the most trying times for hockey fans. Maybe its time to give someone else a chance. The NHL needs a different kind of leader to recover from the turmoil of the lockout and the poor ratings of recent years. I know that changing a few faces won't instantly fix the league, but I'm not sure what else to do. What's being done now isn't working. Beyond that, I'm already a hockey fan, so it can be hard to see what's not to like about the league.

In years past, it's been hard enough to watch my beloved Jackets, just one team, struggle for so many years. Now we're watching the whole league struggle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bettman must go!! he's diluted the game and is ruining hockey!!

http://www.firebettman.com

Join together and help get rid of the man who's ruining the NHL!!!

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