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Selling Itself Short

By George Malik: When the GM's meet in Toronto later today, they're going to discuss potential rule changes as they canvass the GM's for their opinions as to why both attendance and ratings are down this year. They'll toss around the usual crap that GM's do--bigger nets, letting more penalties go to bring "passion" and "intensity" back, according to some pundits, mandating wood sticks and/or visors, etc; in other words, they'll look at the easy changes, the tweaks that don't require much forethought, any idea what players want, or what fans would like to see changed.

If you’ve watched all the “legal pushing” turn into shoving, clutching, and grabbing again, you know where that kind of thinking leads the game.  A year after the “crackdown,” we’re having lower-scoring games not because goaltenders are any better, but because players can not only get away with legitimate plays like sealing a puck-carrier to the boards, but they can also hold him there and get away with it.  While Mickey Redmond keeps griping about anything less than decapitation being a “chintzy” call, most broadcasters have begun to note what we’ve seen since the beginning of the season—they’re “letting a lot go” this year.
That’s “GM thinking” for you.  If you don’t like the agreed-upon mandate, change the mandate. 
They don’t mention that the fact that ticket prices have risen in almost every market—whether it’s through out-and-out ticket price increases, hikes in “convenience” fees or arena-specific taxes, “facilities” fees, or parking and concessions, wherever you turn, fans are finding out that the cost of attending a game has nothing to do with a salary-capped NHL (sorry, it’s about supply and demand), and, perhaps moreover, the NHL’s attitude towards its fans has changed this year.  It’s no longer “Thank You, Fans!”  It’s “What else do you want us to do, actually care about catering to your needs?  We’ve got you back, so pay up.”
Our reaction: “We went through a lockout for this?”
The much more affordable alternative is to either go to a bar or restaurant to watch the game, or to simply stay home and watch hockey. 
Therein lies the problem. 
Most of your home team’s games are televised, but what happens when they’re not televised locally, or they’re on Versus?
If you don’t have Versus, and most people who don’t have access to Comcast cable don’t have Versus, you’ve got a problem.
If you’ve got Center Ice, you might be blacked out.
If you have neither, and you live in the U.S., your access to hockey is pretty limited. 
When hockey’s this hard to follow when you’re a dedicated fan, what does the average person think about the game?
The NHL’s mandate has been the same for the past few years: “Get ‘em in the rink, and they’re more likely than not to leave as a fan.”
How do you get “them” in the rink if “they” can’t see a game for themselves?
When the NHL went with Versus, it went with the guaranteed buck, but it did so for much more limited distribution, and in doing so, while OLN made the NHL a priority, their schedule of games is still pretty limited.  They’re airing 60-80 games per year, as opposed to 110-130 with ESPN and ESPN2. 
Moreover, the NHL’s remained opposed to a daily highlights show on Versus.  You might be able to catch a few NHL highlights on your local network, or on ESPN, but the time given to the NHL is proportional to its perceived value in U.S. markets, and that value is minuscule.
In most of the U.S., the NHL, even with Versus, is a “once a week” or “twice a week” sport, and with no other media exposure…
I have a great deal of respect for John Buccigross.  I think he’s a passionate hockey fan and a great writer.  But he and Barry Melrose aren’t popular simply because of their personalities, nor do we know Ray Ferraro is “chicken pargm” because he’s the best hockey analyst that ever was.
Try “they had a big TV presence.”
For us U.S.-based fans, The NHL2Night was like going over to Windsor and watching Sporstcentre or Sportsnews—our jaws dropped, and then we picked them off the floor with smiles on ‘em. 
Hockey’s like anything.  If you can see it once or twice a week, you miss games, and the NHL doesn’t generate a lot of PR because it markets its players poorly. 
That doesn’t mean that the sport has to “get more controversial” to attract fans, nor does it mean that there’s something wrong with the game, other than it being a very expensive sport to watch for the fans that the lockout didn’t wipe out—and you’d better believe that the NHL, and Gary Bettman especially, have no concept whatsoever as to the magnitude of damage it did to its own fan base by wiping out a season (more on that another time).
The NHL needs to make itself a sporting habit for the casual fan, and that means we need a broadcasting schedule that’s “more regular” than once or twice a week, on a network that over half the country doesn’t have access to.  Once “they” watch the games, and watch them on a regular (and live) basis, “they” might latch onto an actual team, “their” passion for the game would be kindled, the act of watching hockey would become habitual, and some of “them” may very well become one of “us” hockey fans.
While Google’s NHL video services are a good step in that direction, they lack the excitement of live games, and files that you can save and watch later can get tabled to a later date “when you have time” to watch the game tend not to be watched.  Ask anybody who’s rented a few movies to watch when they “have time later this week.”
What the NHL really needs, first and foremost, is a regular presence on TV, and if it can’t or won’t schedule a higher percentage of its games on a national carrier—or won’t work harder to make that national carrier available—a nightly highlights show would help immensely.  Heck, it’d help immensely for those of us who’re die-hard fans, too. 
But establishing a more regular presence on TV isn’t an easy thing to do, so we’ll hear about 6’x6’ nets and some sort of “un-crackdown” sometime on Tuesday night, and that’s unfortunate. 
Hockey’s a hard habit to kick.  It’s the most compelling sport in the world, whether you’re watching at the rink, at a bar, or at home on a TV, regardless of whether it’s an analog TV or a HDTV.
It’s the making it a habit part that’s the trick, and the NHL seems to have forgotten that part. 
Given the increases in prices at rinks and the difficulties involved in following hockey for its most die-hard fans in the States, it may as well get used to the empty swaths of seats and playoff ratings that get their rears kicked by reruns of Spongebob Squarepants.

Filed in: NHL Talk, George James Malik, Hockey Broadcasting, | KK Hockey | Permalink


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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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