Just over twelve years ago, Rudy Giuliani’s thin frame hung over Madison Square Garden. In 1994 he had combed over hair and often wore glasses. He wasn’t “America’s Mayor.” He was just the guy who replaced David Dinkins. It was a different world from the one we live in now. In that world Giuliani was obligated to wish the New York Rangers well from the broadcast booth as they faced the Canucks. After a 54 year absence the Stanley Cup was sorely missed. The Rangers had won the Prince of Wales Trophy by defeating the New Jersey Devils in an Eastern Conference Finals that featured 3 double overtime games. It would be a riveting and highly rated seven game Finals series. Back then the Electronic Arts’ NHL video games, featured in /Swingers/ and /Chasing Amy/ were as large a part of our cultural consciousness as Madden Football is today. The league was expanding into underserved sports markets like San Jose and Tampa. Lord Stanley’s Cup was touring the world’s largest media market and the American sports scene welcomed hockey and its helmeted Czech, Slovak and Russian players with open arms.
But after the lockout shortened season of 1994-1995 Stanley Cup Finals games found smaller and smaller audiences, falling from a 3.4 ratings share on Fox in 1995 to a 2.9 in 2001 on ABC. After the cancelled ’04-05 season, rule changes made hockey a faster, more fluid and dynamic game. No lead was safe. But league parity made even small market teams competitive. Unlike baseball where Pittsburgh and Kansas City fail year after year, hockey fans can count on their team becoming competitive. But the Carolina vs. Edmonton Stanley Cup finals managed only a 2.3 rating on NBC.
Just twelve years earlier, hockey was considered one of the big four professional sports in North America. But now the NHL has been eclipsed by NASCAR, golf and even poker. Feeling spurned by ESPN, the league fled to OLN – a network known for its smaller reach and coverage of bass fishing. Hockey got lots of love from OLN (which is changing its name to Versus this year) – but the coverage lacked polish until the playoffs began. But when playoff games were broadcast on OLN, they received only a .4 rating compared to the .7 ESPN captured for Hockey just two years earlier.
However, there are signs that the league is figuring out how to re-capture the place they held in the American sports consciousness. After the painful cancellation of the 2004-2005 season which enabled Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL to re-order the leagues finances, the league found itself with two rookie phenoms, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. They adapted well to the speedier game and put up Gretzky-like numbers in their first seasons. In these two players the NHL has found their Bird and Magic – two superstars who can put the league back on the map after a period of decline. It also helps that their names are easy to pronounce
Last season the NHL produced promos that featured a nameless hockey player who was being dressed for battle by a voluptuous woman. They were a colossal failure. Every sport relies on the metaphor of battle. But a battle only piques our interest if we care about the two sides engaged in it. Finally the NHL, with the help of Versus has begun to market its players – recently featuring Peter Foresberg. Versus has plans to profile dozens of league’s stars over the course of the season.
While Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times suggests the NHL “must flee Versus, crawl over broken glass if need be, and beg ESPN to take it back,” there are good reasons to stick with the new network rather than take a deal with ESPN. While ESPN has more power and reach than any other sports network, they no longer have hegemonic control over cable sports. Regional Networks like YES and SNY in New York or MASN in the in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, along with league specific channels like the NFL network, are acclimating sports fans to cable sports coverage apart from the ESPN behemoth. Rather than getting shoved around the ESPN schedule by the NBA, the NHL will benefit from its partnership with a network that dedicates a substantial amount of its prime time to hockey and that depends on hockey’s growth for its own success.
Another breakthrough for the sports’ television coverage is HDTV. Previously when Fox had a deal to broadcast NHL games, their technological solution to the difficulty of “following the puck” was to highlight it with an orange “foxtail.” The sport’s most hard-core blanched that the action was mired by such a hokey novelty — especially one that encouraged people to follow the puck rather than the play. HDTV technology is a potential savior, promising increased definition and a wider aspect ratio that will better translate the speed and excitement of the live product to televised broadcasts.
Even with the distribution challenges Versus faces, the best news for the NHL is that it still has a great game and can draw talent from around the world to play in its league. Countries in the northern hemisphere will continue to churn out great hockey players and the infrastructure for high school and collegiate teams is still growing in America, even in the south after the success of the Carolina Hurricanes. Older than both the NFL and the NBA, hockey isn’t going to disappear without a fight.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Hadley Heath