Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals is tomorrow night with the Hawks taking their one game advantage back to Philly. They could easily win this and put an end to what has been an exciting, yet sloppily played finals. If not, game 7 is right around the corner and would most certainly become an instant classic. Each and every day after one of these playoff games, there have been reports flying around the interwebs about the TV ratings. Ever since the Olympic "explosion" of popularity, it seems hockey has moved from the back burner to almost front and center. But is this a good thing for the fans or only the business side of the sport?
I am not stupid enough to ignore that fact that a sports popularity is largely due to its marketability. With most NHL games over the last five years appearing on lesser known (or carried) cable stations and local market affiliates, it has hardly had the national following that it somewhat had pre-lockout. Last year alone, there were a half dozen market affiliates that even considered dropping NHL games from their lineups, technically creating local blackouts. While this would have most certainly destroyed or at the least, damaged some viewing opportunities, the fan would either pony up for tickets, go to a bar that would spare a tv in the corner, or find the radio broadcast, even if it meant driving around town for 2 1/2 hours to listen. Now let me take a step back and say that I am largely speaking of the United States market because, as we all know, hockey is THE sport in Canada and always will be (one more reason to move to Canada, as if I needed more).
I am also not stupid enough to not realize the fact that running an NHL team is the same as running a regular business. Ratings mean revenue. Revenue means sustainability. I get that. I get all of that. If a business fails, all beneficiaries of it's service will suffer as well. In this case, low ratings mean lower marketability. Lower marketability means less exposure. Eventually the Networks will win out and hockey will once again be relegated to some hunting and fly fishing channel on extended cable, never to be heard from again (maybe that's a slight exaggeration). The only people left watching will be the diehards with the fortunate position of being able to afford the "Center Ice" packages or live in a cable market that has said network. Ultimately, though, the business agenda of the league, ownerships, and networks is not the same as the fan's agenda. The fan, in their primitive form, doesn't care about those things. They will find a way.
Marketing focuses on some basic economic principles. You are trying to gain the biggest return of/on investment of a concept/product for the least amount of effort and shortest amount of time. There is no doubt that the Olympics this year was the catalyst for the focus on the current popularity of the NHL. With more emphasis on the Winter Classic each year, and now the Heritage Classic in Canada, prime-time television exposure is successfully targeting a demographic that has forgone hockey for more accessible sports like baseball, football, and dare I say, basketball. But the Olympics is every four years and the Winter Classic only happens once a year. The other annual tournaments have already proven to provide less a motivation for the casual observer. The fan, on the other hand, will actively seek out the coverage whether it be on obscure networks, premium sports packages, or the internet outlets that cover the games.
ESPN exposure helped the NHL in the past with ratings but like anything that isn't fashionable or "hip", was moved to the backburner and eventually off the network completely. If not for Barry Freakin' Melrose, there would be no mention of hockey whatsoever on any of the ESPN networks. VS. is not available in all markets and is subject to local blackout in most. They also have arguably one of the worst coverage teams in the NHL, led by Bill Patrick in studio. Fox had hockey at one time but "jumped the shark" when it introduced the Glow Puck "technology" when they felt their viewer base was too stupid to follow the game without it. The current NBC coverage is most definitely biased toward US based teams and makes no effort to hide that fact. Despite having games for the last two years, they are still tinkering with their announcing matchups and analysts but just haven't found that right combination; they are close but not there yet. Who knows what will happen if NBC and Comcast actually are able to merge. Shudder to think.
Which brings me to the fans. If there is one thing that has driven me nuts (other than the Pens suffocation under their own ineptitudes) during this playoff season, it has to be all the "fair-weather fans" that have suddenly sprung up like dandelions in my front yard. The extra media attention has brought out everyone from little kids who didn't know what hockey was to grandma's that think Toews and Kane are "nice young boys". I hope, for my sanity's sake, that these are true "new" fans that will stick around after the hype, after the hoopla, and after the playoff intensity dies down and not cockroaches that scurry under the fridge when you flip the light on. If that occurs, hockey in the US could see a resurgence as big as it had when the NHL was marketed as "The Coolest Game on Earth" and every promotion told you so.
Unfortunatly for those FWF's, I think their days are probably numbered and within the next month, they will have forgotten how fun it was to watch a game. They will forget the fast pace, the hard hitting, and the intense competition. The hockey talk at the water cooler, the front page headlines, the lazy sports writers that never cover hockey except when it's fashionable, the coverage by the Entertainment News outlets like Huffington, TMZ, print newspapers, etc. will all go away. We will be back to where we were right before and right after the lockout. The true fan will be left standing.
The best thing, in my opinion, about all of it comes from a more selfish side of me. Because the FWF's will all go back to watching baseball and preparing for thier fantasy football drafts, I will have nothing to discuss with these people.
-I won't have to explain what icing is almost on a daily basis.
-I won't have to explain why helmets don't have full face masks.
-I won't have to try and defend the merits of pulling your goaltender with 2 minutes to go in the playoffs to someone that sees no benefit to extra offense and can't understand there is no difference in losing 4-3 or 5-3...it's still a loss.
-I won't be critized for making critical comments about the lack of goaltending prowess and breakdowns in defense every single night while 8-10 combined goals are scored.
-I won't have to explain the physics of putting a 1" x 3" round piece of frozen rubber into a 6'x4' box being blocked by a 6'+ tall man in full goalie pads while skating 15-20 mph to anyone that thinks it is "their job" and should be easy.
The questions will stop and I won't have to defend the sport that I love any longer to people whose rallying cry is "Hooray, local sports team(s) and or athlete(s)". I will be content once again...
(The views in this long-winded and probably mostly incoherent rant are the fragmented views of the author and do not necessarily represent those of any parties involved, mentioned, or thought about in the process of forming this post. Those parties include but are not limited to: the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the executives of ESPN, NBC, VS, FOX or any other lackluster sports broadcasting organization, Gary "the Devil" Bettman, most of the morons I have crossed paths with over the last six months, Barry Melrose, Bill Patrick, the inventor of the Glow Puck (may you burn in hell), or any other person that may find what I said offensive or off putting. Thank you.
----The Management )