The Great Disappearing League

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

Comments and Conversation

June 15, 2006

stupid article:

here add this to your reasons the NHL isn’t doing great….

its top execs dont turn a blind eye to their players taking massive amounts of steriods to break records and bring in fans after a lock out. how about that?

baseball is the most boring sport on this planet, if not the least watched, even behind hockey, on the international level.

the game has improved so much and its sad the idiots running the league haven’t been fired for their terrible marketing of the sport.

June 15, 2006


TV ratings suck, yeah. But so little of the NHL’s revenue comes from TV ratings it doesn’t really matter right now.

What the NHL is focused on - and what they should be focused on - is improving the game (which they did in fine fashion with the rule changes), getting the local markets back into the game (attendance was up nearly all across the board this year over the previous season), and stablizing the LOCAL television markets. The Fox Sports Net’s of the country.

TV ratings sucked for the NHL before the lockout - and it will take time for them to recover.

I do think that OLN will continue to promote the game and they’ll increase their national coverage and their in-home reach for next season, and as time goes on, more and more people will discover OLN *IS* actually on their cable and dish systems. And as the local markets fill up the arenas, more people will watch the games on local and national TV.

I’m willing to bet that by the time the current TV deal ends (4 years from now?), hockey will get back onto ESPN, and like all things that ESPN carries, they’ll promote it, and things will continue to improve.

The fact is, hockey is a great game, with more, faster action than ANY OTHER MAJOR TEAM SPORT. Even in North Carolina, where the natives have never seen a lake with ice strong enough to stand on are slowly beginning to appreciate the game more. And when you consider the competition that hockey has in that market, their dramatic increase in attendance this year is no less remarkable than the season the team had.

I’m not worried about the state of the sport of hockey.

June 15, 2006


You don’t believe those phony attendance figures, do you? Virtually every team in the league pads its attendance stats. The number of bodies that enter the building and the number of tickets that people actually paid money for is vastly different than the reported attendance. I’m surprised that no one challenged the NHL to prove its claim that attendance went up this year.

June 16, 2006


Your ignorance is astounding. Never mind the fact that the league is increasing the team salary cap by $5 million next year. Something tells me that they wouldn’t do such a thing if it was ‘dying’. Never mind the fact that this ‘dying’ league produces over $2 billion annually. The NHL has received nothing but praise in the media for the product they’ve put on the ice this year. The only “journalists” who haven’t praised them are the ones who no nothing about the sport as is the case here. Zach - write what you know about or else do some research.

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