Sunday, September 30, 2007

If a puck drops, and nobody cares, does it make a sound?

I follow baseball, football (pro and college) and NASCAR rather closely. I track basketball just enough to have a conversation about it, and I love March Madness. I watch SportsCenter roughly once a day, and I frequent many sports sites.

In other words, I think I'm a pretty typical red-blooded American sports fan.

Imagine my surprise as I'm watching PTI the other day and they mention the NHL regular season started Saturday. And it started in London. Who knew? (Or, at least, who south of Canada knew?)

The NHL has been struggling for quite a while. Long before the strike that wiped out the 2004-2005 season, the NHL was lagging in US viewers and fans. The fact that the players' union and the owners let themselves get to the point of canceling an entire season is bad enough considering the already thin ice (pun intended) the league was on. Since then Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, has seen his decision making ability degrade from there.

Baseball had a vicious strike during their 1994 season that led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years. Once an agreement was made between the union and management, Bud Selig and others realized they needed to market the heck out of baseball and get as much exposure as possible; you could barely turn on a television without seeing a commercial about MLB or a game.

The NHL didn't learn from baseball's lead. There was very little in the way of marketing when play was restored. And in this millennium, quite possibly the most important factor for any sports league is television exposure. In fact, there was many a puck-head pundit who insisted that HD was the one thing that could save the league. So what did the NHL do after the strike ended? Go to ESPN, and give ESPN the best deal in the world to show NHL games, knowing that exposure is the most critical component to recovering after the strike? Nope - they went to OLN Versus, a network that was famous for the Tour de France and very little after that. Couple that with the fact that they're not in every cable market (we only get them on the most premier package here), and until recently did not offer HD.

Now the NHL is attempting gimmicks to raise ratings and awareness. Having their opening game in London will generate more interest in Europe than here, and shouldn't the US be the country the NHL is interested in? And if you're going to hold a big event to open the season, maybe playing the game during prime time on a national television network is a better plan than an Saturday afternoon game on Versus?

And as further proof the NHL still doesn't get it, they've decided to hold an outdoor game in Buffalo. Great idea. I'd love to see hockey played in the elements. But apparently the cold got to Bettman's brain; they're holding the game on January 1st - the day dedicated to recovering from the night before and watching college football until your butt is numb. If you're already a hockey fan you're going to watch; but the NHL needs to grow beyond current hockey fans.

Hockey fans are about as dedicated as soccer fans. And no matter what the NHL does, a puck-head's allegiance will never waiver. What the NHL doesn't seem to grok is they can't sustain a league on this small subset of the population. They need converts. They need to make it easy for the passing fan to tune in and watch what is a very exciting game.

Unfortunately for the NHL, the only people who don't realize this are employed by the NHL front office.

No comments: