It was difficult to think of a topic for my first blog entry. Some of the obvious came to mind - i.e., upcoming super bowl, college hoops, etc. I decided to stick with a topic near and dear to a kid from northern MN...hockey.
Following the 2004-05 lockout, which resulted in cancelling the entire season, the NHL has struggled to revive itself as one of the four major professional sports. It was well on its way out of that elite company prior to the lockout, but it is even more evident in recent years.
One of the biggest issues is lack of a major TV contract. Cable TV programming is with the Versus network. Versus commits to at least 54 regular season games (usually 2 per week) and most playoff games that are not on network TV. The contract was initiated following the lockout season and recently extended through 2010-11. Financially, it made sense for the NHL and was the only viable option after the lockout. Versus is owned by Comcast, which prevents its availability on many satelite or basic cable packages.
The other national outlet is NBC, which televises a weekly Sunday matinee game. It seems clear professional hockey sits at or near the bottom of NBC's totem pole. This was evident in 2007 when NBC cut to horse racing during overtime coverage of an NHL playoff game.
Whether Versus or NBC, the NHL continues to suffer from TV ratings that rank on par with the likes of snowboarding, bowling, and the WNBA. Although the NHL has long been considered a poor TV sport because of the speed of play, this paints a very dim picture in comparison to the other 3 major U.S. sports.
Another factor is the league's failure to market its star players. There has been an increased effort in recent years, but today's Stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are not on the same level as Mario Lemiuex and Wayne Gretzky when they reached stardom. Teams are doing a nice job of marketing at the local level, but this is out of necessity to fill seats. League commissioner Gary Bettman has rightfully received his share of criticism on this issue.
There are certainly numerous problems to address, but the final one I will discuss is the lengthy regular season. This could also apply to the NBA, but due to star power of its players, the issue is not as critical. The playoffs are considred a "second season", which is true both in length and intensity. Teams currently play 82 regular season games and up to 28 playoff games.
The playoffs generate considerable more fan interest and the Stanley Cup remains the most prestigious and well-known trophy in sports. As a devoted hockey fan growing up, I find it hard to tune in for regular season games. In this blogger's opinion, the regular season should be reduced by at least 30% to promote the playoff races earlier in the season.
We all know the chances of that happening are virtually zero due to lost revenue in ticket sales. However, it is my belief that the sport would benefit in the long run through more lucrative TV contracts and increased fan interest, which would lead to more profits split between teams.
Whether it's TV, lack of marketing, or scheduling, the NHL has dug itself a hole bigger than the one between Jenna Jamison's legs. This should be an exciting time for the league. There is an abundance of extremely talented stars entering their prime. If they don't figure out a way to grow the fan base and get people interested, nobody will care.