Friday, June 16, 2006

A Positive Spin On Things

A couple of nights ago, Jay Leno poked some fun at the NHL and its abysmal ratings:

"The Stanley Cup finals on NBC in prime time last night got a two. Not a two rating. Two people watched," he said.

"Even Stanley wasn't watching, and it's his cup. I don't think we have ever done worse in the ratings."
Considering that NBC once featured flops like "Who Wants to Marry My Dad" and "Tommy Lee Goes To College", that kinda hurt.

Now, I hate dwelling on the negative - and there's probably a million articles out there right now about the NHL's ratings - and it was nice to actually read a positive spin on the league's first year following the lockout.

Here's Evan Wiener (NY Sun):

The National Hockey League has made a remarkable recovery from the deathbed scenarios many predicted after the owners shut down the industry in 2004-05.The fan base has returned. The raw national cable and over-the-air TV ratings are awful, but the NHL's many critics need to look beyond the raw TV numbers.

Sports no longer plays to a broad audience, the NHL like the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NFL, Major League Soccer, and NASCAR need to take care of the base before they go after the causal TV viewer or the person who might want to see a game a year. The NHL did just that.
There are some who argue that the NHL didn't. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the unbalanced schedule (but that's just because it deprives me of the opportunity to boo the Leafs every year), but for the most part, I like how they have opened up the game. I like that the game is faster and I like how there is more continuous action.

And that's what makes a hockey a great game, right? Most of us fans remember the dead puck era and how you could leave the room for large chunks of the game and not miss much. That really isn't the case anymore. For example, if you missed the first five minutes of Wesnesday night's game, you would have missed two goals. If you missed the first period, you would have missed five goals. And even in the second and third periods when goals when only one goal was scored, hits were being thrown, big saves were being made. In other words, hockey fans can actually enjoy watching hockey games again.

Coming out of the lockout, the NHL had less than 90 days to put together an American cable TV contract and sell corporate sponsorship.The 30 individual teams had to sell the big-ticket items - the luxury boxes and club seats - along with individual tickets, and sign local sponsorship agreements. It was an awful lot of work in a short time, especially when both the league and individual clubs laid off a good many workers, including sales specialists.

In the end, the NHL got the fan base back. The league set new records for total and average attendance: 20,854,169 fans went to NHL games this season, an average of 16,955 per game, an increase of 2.4% from the 2003-04 season and 1.2% higher than the previous record, set in 2001-02. In total, NHL teams played 1,230 games to 91.7% capacity.
Hands up if you anticipated fans to come back this in these numbers. Certainly, the hardcore fanbase would have been expected to return, but I think most would be lying if they thought the league would set attendance records after a one-year layoff.

OLN, which will become Versus in September, had about 20 million fewer subscribers than ESPN. But Comcast smartly offered games to regional sports networks and to cable operators who did not offer OLN. Comcast also switched OLN from a digital tier to basic expanded cable on their systems in an effort to make it more available to cable subscribers and created video on-demand possibilities for the NHL. The on-demand features included condensed games for the fast-forward generation, which grew up watching taped TV shows and SportsCenter highlights, and don't have time - or the attention span - to watch an entire game.

For Comcast and OLN advertisers, landing the NHL has been a big plus, not least because the NHL has brought in viewers. OLN's ratings grew about 275% when it showed an NHL game compared to other programming. People might think no one watches hockey, but having 600,000 households watching a Stanley Cup Final game on OLN was a huge improvement for the network.
Honestly, I don't know much about the TV numbers down in the US. I only see the Neilsen ratings normally in the 1's and 2's and I know the numbers for the Stanley Cup finals have gone up each game.

But even through those horrible numbers, if the NHL becomes the key to OLN's future - as evidenced by its ratings - then that can only be good for the league. To put it in a Canadian perspective, why do you think the CBC spends a lot of its resources towards Hockey Night In Canada? Because without it, the CBC doesn't have a lot much else to draw viewers in.

In the face of collapse, the NHL has done more than a billion dollars worth of business in the past year from ticket sales, licensing, and multimedia deals despite losing some sponsors along the way. The league did not fall flat on its face for various reasons, primarily because corporates came back to buy tickets and, most important, because hockey fans are loyal and never took the lockout very seriously.They knew there would be hockey eventually and returned when asked.

Hockey is never going to be a big TV draw, nor will it be a big talk-radio topic, but that doesn't matter as much in the new world of sports technology, where broadband, condensed video, on-demand, cellular updates, and niche cable TV networks have become more and more a part of the fan's experience. In the future, that is where leagues will make money. The NHL was smart enough to jump on board with both feet.
This is probably one of the least talked about aspects of the league's return. Even without expansion money and a big TV contract deal, the league at least generated as much revenue as before. While I agree with the critics that the value of the Canadian loonie was partly responsible for this, the league also did some good things by signing deals with XM, iTunes, etc.

There are, of course, still some problems. Pittsburgh needs a new arena and could move next spring, but if the business is so bad, why is there interest from investors in Kansas City, Winnipeg, Hartford, and Houston? Perhaps the NHL, forced to modernize on the run, has finally come up with a good economic model for its owners and its fans.There is life after the lockout after all.
Perhaps there is.

Comments/Questions: Feel free to post in the comments section or email me at gocanucksgo10 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

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posted by J.J. Guerrero, 6:57 AM


At June 16, 2006 10:41 AM, Blogger Jeremy said...

"And even in the second and third periods when goals when only one goal was scored, hits were being thrown, big saves were being made. In other words, hockey fans can actually enjoy watching hockey games again."

I enjoyed the third period more than most periods this series, probably because there were only two penalties called (as opposed to a ridiculous eight in the first that made for a total gong show).

Sorry for sounding like Ron Maclean here, but I enjoyed watching hockey as much or more in previous years, and I'm a bit mystified by fans claiming that they didn't -- how have we forgotten that it's always been fast, hard-hitting and exciting? The only reason there's been more scoring is all the chintzy penalties being called and the resulting power plays cashing in. The five-on-five play is still exciting, just like it's always been.

In contrast to your example, I couldn't leave the room in previous seasons for "large chunks of the game and not miss much" -- I was missing the hitting, passing, speed, scoring chances, and great saves of good hockey played five-on-five, which is why I watch. This year, you could leave the room for ten minutes and miss a few minutes of good five-on-five play, plus you'd also miss three or four power plays and a PP goal or two.

Perhaps it's just me, but I've realized that I don't enjoy watching power plays, and it doesn't even matter if I'm cheering for the team with the advantage. It just seems unbalanced and gimmicky, particularly when the initial call was awful, as many in this series have been (against both teams). When there were six or eight penalties a game (usually obvious penalties, the power plays didn't seem so intrusive -- they didn't wreck the flow of the game somehow.

To me it looked like the players adjusted to the new standard about mid-season, so they decided to keep raising it slightly to ensure more power play goals. Although it sounds like many people think this is great, I will not forget how much I loved watching hockey in previous years.

Sorry for the cantankerous tone -- I do enjoy (and agree with) most of what I read here.

At June 16, 2006 10:51 PM, Blogger hoopsjunky said...

No worries, Jeremy... no tone or anything like that taken. :)

Maybe partly my fault and maybe I worded it poorly. What I wanted to say was that I didn't hate the old game, but I do like the new one better.

I know there has been some talk about the higher scores - artificially or not - but personally, that doesn't matter as much as the fact that there is more skating, faster skating, more emphasis on skill and positioning. I like how if players can't do any of those, then they really don't have a place in this league.

It's true that there have been some chintzy calls this season and an unusually large number of powerplays. That part sucks. But I also realize that this is the first full season of the obstruction crackdown and I fully expect both sides - the players and the refs - will adjust. If the players adjust to the standard, the refs won't need to call as many penalties, and in the end, we get what I think most want - the emphasis on the speed and skill game but without as many powerplays.

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