Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Great Disappearing League

By Zach Jones

Signs your professional sports league is in decline:

1) The labor stoppage that cancels a full season of play gets about as much media coverage as the opening of a local Walgreens.

2) When play begins the next year, your league signs a television contract with ... the Outdoor Life Network.

That's right, die-hard hockey fans. In case you haven't noticed (and judging from the TV ratings, you haven't), the NHL has hitched its wagon to the most obscure sports network this side of RodeoNet, and the league's playoff games drew audiences usually reserved for re-runs of Emergency Broadcast System tests.

If these had been real sporting events, you would have been directed to a real network — one that doesn't require a satellite dish the size of a Kia.

As the Stanley Cup Finals rage on, hockey fans are left to conjure up misty memories of the days when hordes of non-hockey fans would clamor to arenas and television sets nationwide to make the game's biggest event one of the highlights of the sports calendar.

But last year's lockout dealt the league, its players and the rag-tag band of face-painters who still admit to being fans a body blow. Gone are the days when anybody outside the hardcore hockey fan base would bother to change the channel from one of the Big Three to re-learn the rules of the game for three weeks. Heck, these days they can't even find the channel.

Perhaps the clearest statement of how bad things have gotten is the league's new marketing slogan: "We believe in hockey." Is this a fill-in-your-own-joke challenge? Are my choices listed A-D below the slogan?

Hockey fans have always been an eccentric bunch. There's no such thing as a "casual" hockey fan, which bodes well for the league as it tries to regain the national footing it enjoyed just a few years ago when it threatened to pass the NBA in popularity.

The sort of fans who call an old Mario Lemieux jersey "business casual" will no doubt keep the turnstiles spinning, but the NHL will eventually have to attract a demographic other than the guy who tunes in for the BassMasters final and sticks around for Canadiens vs. Sharks, thinking it's more of the same.

Until then, however, the combination of hockey and rodeo coverage on the OLN will ensure that it continues to lead all networks in tobacco stains and bring up the rear in teeth. And sports fans from coast to coast will continue asking the question: Who, exactly, cares about hockey?

Besides the folks who are making it out to the games, is there an actual audience for the hockey highlights on ESPN (you know, the network that decided it wasn't worth it to renew its contract with the league for another season)?

A second, more startling question, is this: are we watching the gradual dissolution of a major sports league? If the NHL's first round of playoff games are producing television ratings of 0.8, while the Rolex Equestrian Championships and "The Villages Shoot Your Age Championship" (golf) are garnering ratings of 0.9 and 0.8, respectively, can we really call hockey a sport with a future (or a present, for that matter) on the national level?

And if not, is there a reason that I can open the sports section of my hometown newspaper (or any other daily sports section) and find an illustrated hockey recap on page three? In a city (San Diego) that doesn't have an NHL team? If you're as tired of reading the previous 600 words about hockey as I am of writing them, is there a reason your local and national media continue to keep you updated on the game's progress?

This is a league that is dying of asphyxiation. The NHL is aching for the mainstream exposure that ESPN's coverage package provided and the sport's professional future (at least in the United States) may depend on whether a major network is willing to do the heavy lifting to resuscitate it.

God knows the dentally-impaired OLN crowd isn't the answer. They're not watching, anyway — it's grunion season, doncha know!

Signs that your professional sports league is in decline:

3) See column above

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