Monday, June 12, 2006

What channel is your hockey on?

Does anybody know who’s winning the Stanley Cup Finals?

I do, but not because I’ve watched more than a minute of the compelling, star-studded, media circus Carolina Hurricanes-Edmonton Oilers series.

(Note the sarcasm above.)

Nobody, and I mean nobody, is watching this year’s Cup Finals, including myself. As late as 2004, the Stanley Cup-deciding series was a fixture on my television set, even with the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning-Calgary Flames matchup.

And here’s why this year, it’s not even a blip on my radar screen.

I actually had to search for my channel guide to see if my cable provider airs the Outdoor Life Network, now the NHL’s flagship station.

After a 15-minute search for the guide, it turns out they don’t.

In a way only the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman could, they completely screwed the teams, players, and most importantly, the fans with this T.V. deal.

In 2005, after a lockout that all but removed hockey from major sport status in the United States, the league opted to sign its TV rights deal to OLN instead of ESPN.

ESPN, who has been airing the NHL since 1992, declined the one year, $60 million option for the 2005-06 season.

However, multiple sources said ESPN was still interested, just not at the price the NHL was asking or that OLN was offering.

OLN won the NHL with a $65 million deal the first two seasons, with one year options extending to 2011, hinging on OLN subscriber levels.

This is where then NHL lost any chance of becoming relevant in America for a very long time.

The logical decision would have been to sign with ESPN for less money. ESPN is by far and away the kingpin in sports broadcasting, and it would have allowed the NHL to showcase their new, fast paced game to over $20 million more households than OLN could have.

The league’s reasoning was that OLN would market the NHL better than ESPN because it would be the cornerstone of the network.

Here’s a news flash: all the marketing in the world would not boost the NHL’s ratings as significant as the league seems to think it would and what better way to market your product than having it on ESPN in primetime?

Here are some figures from Nielsen that show how far the NHL’s television value has actually fallen. The 2005-06 OLN broadcasts averaged 117,000 households. In the 2003-04 NHL season (before the lockout), ESPN and ESPN 2 averaged 416,000 and 209,000, respectively.

The NHL can’t even beat the WNBA or poker anymore. According to ESPN’com’s Darren Rovell, more people watched the 13 WNBA broadcasts on ESPN 2 than the NHL on OLN this year. Also, NBC’s poker series, which follows their NHL playoff coverage, is outdrawing the main attraction by 200,000 viewers.

NBC’s ratings have actually gone down from the regular season to the playoffs, from 1.09 million households to 1.02 million.

During the same time slot that could be filled by playoff hockey games, ESPN was airing other programming such as poker, the Women’s College World Series, the U.S. Paintball Championships, and that terrible Battle of the Gridiron show.

I’d like to think that if you throw a conference or Stanley Cup final in those slots they’d outdraw any of the aforementioned events.

But ESPN will probably take their chances without the NHL. They can afford to. They have a chokehold on the competition.

Until the NHL comes to their senses and gets back on ESPN, we will watch the league continue to deteriorate in the eyes of the casual fan.

The funny thing is, most of us can’t even watch that.


Anonymous said...

You should be a sports writer

Anonymous said...

I love you.