By Brady Stiff
Sunday’s Olympic Gold Medal game between the US and Canada drew a huge audience. Like 35 million huge.
It’s too bad that hockey can’t draw like that all the time. So how does the NHL capitalize on the “greatest hockey tournament ever”?
The sport is alive and well in cities like Chicago and Buffalo, where the teams there have history, are doing well, and have marketable players. In cities like Columbus, and Sunrise, Florida (home of the Panthers), hockey is on the backburner.
The first thing hockey needs to do is increase visibility. The Blackhawks have proven, on a much smaller scale no doubt, that if you improve the visibility of a team, fans will come back. Of course, it helps to have a good team in a big market. But ratings have improved in San Jose as well. It’s one of the places you’d least think to find hockey. They must be doing something right.
The NHL used to have a couple of nights per week devoted to it on ESPN. Of course, we all know, ESPN is the go-to source for sports news and games and what-not. Then there was a lockout season. An entire season without hockey. That absolutely devastated the league. Gone was the TV contract with ESPN, gone were the fans, gone was the game from everyone’s attention.
When the league came back in 2005-2006, they could only be found on the Outdoor Life Network. Seriously? Hockey on the OUTDOOR Life Network? Come on. I don’t care if OLN told the NHL of their plans to change their name to Versus. That’s just bad marketing on the part of the NHL. How many people even knew the OLN existed when the NHL signed on with them?
The NHL needs to do all it can to get back on ESPN, ASAP. They need to take a page out of the Blackhawks’ playbook and increase the visibility of the league.
The NBC contract is great. Having hockey on a broadcast network is great, especially when they show the Winter Classic and the Stanley Cup Finals. Not everyone gets Versus (I don’t), so they now have to go out to a sports bar or something that will be showing the game.
If I’m Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner, here’s what I do:
The TV contract with Versus runs out after the 2010-2011 season. I would negotiate a half-season deal with Versus for the first half of the 2011-2012 season. The second half rights, at a bargain price, would go to ESPN. I would promote the hell out of the Winter Classic, which by the way must include two big-market teams (Rangers vs. Kings?). That way, ESPN gets to carry the momentum of the Winter Classic into their broadcast schedule. It wouldn’t be like the effect the Olympics could have, but it’s a start.
Maybe if the sport is showcased on ESPN, more people will understand the game. More players will be highlighted, more teams featured, more people will watch. The way it is now, unless you are a fan of the game, you don’t necessarily understand it, and you’re not clearing your schedule to watch the next big game.
The other thing the NHL needs to do is allow their players to keep playing in the Olympics. Would anyone care like they did during the past two weeks? No way. I’m tuning in to watch Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, and Sidney Crosby. I’m not tuning in to watch someone I’ve never heard of before. USA Basketball could get away with sending college players to the Olympics because NCAA Basketball is so huge. It’s not the same for college hockey.
It’s not like the players would be pawns in the NHL’s game either. They want to play. They ate this tournament up. Alex Ovechkin said “Nobody can say to me, ‘You can’t play for your country in the Olympic Games.’ ” Considering the games are in his home country of Russia next time around, and he’s one of the best players in the league, I think he’ll get what he wants.
Check out the video below of Patrick Kane. You can tell that he loved being there and playing for his country. He never has struck me as that sort of sentimental guy, but clearly he’s got that side to him. The first question to Kane was “Why do you still have the jersey on?”…
Hockey is a great game once you sit down and watch it. I know that we here in Chicago can’t wait for the playoffs.