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Thursday, March 4, 2010

The United State(s) of Hockey

The results are in: 27.6 million redblooded Americans watched Sunday's USA-Canada gold medal hockey game. The overtime classic pummeled the 2002 Salt Lake City USA-Canada gold medal match ratings by over 10 million viewers. This number surpasses both the highest rated individual game of the '09 World Series (22.8) and the '09 NBA Finals (16.0). Still not impressed? It's overnight rating tops any Final Four basketball game since 1998, any NBA finals game since '98, or any World Series game since 2004.

Move over, Lebron. It's time to make way for Leclaire. Forget Yankees-Red Sox, have you heard about the heated Caps-Senators rivalry?

OK, so we're getting a little carried away. Before puck purists prematurely crown hockey as the next great American past time, the sport must first overcome the following obstacles:

1. Olympic and NHL hockey are two entirely different brands. Yes, both can market the supreme talents of Ovechkin and Crosby but the similarities end there. The Vancouver Olympics provided the perfect storm for Americans to watch the finale: they were fresh off the most prolific medal count in Winter games history, the game was broadcasted live mid-day on a weekend preventing word of mouth or internet spoilers, and it was the last medal event of the games (which is not always the case). Finally, let's be honest -- a lot of Uncle Sam backers were licking their chops at the prospect of beating Canada at it's own game. Americans had more incentive to tune in for this game than they ever will for a domestic NHL Stanley Cup playoff game. One more thing -- the game was actually on regular TV. Which brings us to the NHL...

2. It's not on TV. In the age of HD television and network sponsored internet broadcasts, an overwhelming majority of fans are enjoying games from their armchairs. The NHL has had several stints on major networks (does anyone remember the flaming puck on FOX?), each ending without a contract renewal due to abysmal ratings. At it's lowest point, Americans were more likely to watch re-runs of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman than a budding regular season rivalry such as Red Wings-Avalanche. Ouch.

It's no coincidence that the NFL was the sole professional sports league that the gold medal game could not surpass in viewership. The $20 some billion dollar TV contract the league boasts is the result of savvy marketing campaigns promoting couch potato services such as real time fantasy stat trackers, the Redzone Channel, and NFL Sunday Ticket. Meanwhile, the NHL toils in obscurity on second tier cable networks such as the Versus channel or the Outdoor Life Network (anyone up for some curling?). The fact that the Stanley Cup playoffs aren't broadcasted on a major network immensley hurts the league. Unforunately, the ugly ratings precedent has networks unwilling to make a leap of faith that the Olympic finale will carry over even a minute fraction of it's audience over to the NHL.

3. Accessibility. Hockey is an specialized sport -- from ice rental time to expensive equipment, it's an activity that requires planning and deep pockets. Outside of the occasional frozen lake in Duluth, pick up hockey in the States simply cannot exist because it's a logistical nightmare for penny pinching parents. Kids in warm weather climates can't be expected to pass up the outdoors on a sunny day for the chilly confines of a local ice rink they share with other ice-related sports. Poor attendance for franchises residing in cities absent of sub-zero winters reflect this disconnect.

I'll give the NHL credit for countering this with its annual outdoor game: it's a unique idea that appeals to both diehard and casual fans. Having the stones to place franchises in the south was an admirable attempt to widen the NHL's fan base, but four of the five teams on the brink of collapsing reside in sweet tea country (Atlanta, Florida, Tampa Bay, Nashville). Again, this is no coincidence. An unnamed executive hypothesized that as many as 15 NHL teams would bite the dust in the next two years. This is likely an exaggerated prediction, NHL commish Gary Bettman would sooner slash payrolls by 50% before he allowed half of the league's teams to contract. Still, the fact that the NHL has to even consider such a scenario doesn't bode well for the league's future.

Finally, we have to wonder what kind of boost a United States victory would have provided for the sport. There's no doubt the David and Goliath storyline would have inspired feel good Disney remakes for years to come but beyond that there's little evidence to suggest such an improbable triumph would have solved hockey's long term problems. While the Olympics creates a new wave of Wheaties Box heroes every two years, the NHL struggles to find sponsorship on the side of your local ice cream truck.

Sidney Crosby erased any potential speculation American hockey had surpassed their northern neighbors with a quick overtime goal. The universe was restored -- hockey was still Canada's game. You can't help but feel it's better off in their hands.


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