September 16, 2004
By ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun
While more than four million Canadians sat on the edge of their seat watching the World Cup of Hockey Tuesday night, American sports fans were captivated by something far more popular. The World Series of Poker.
Yep, south of the border, there's more interest in Texans with no teeth bluffing away thousands of dollars than, well, Canadians with no teeth who are about to bluff away millions.
Nielsen overnight ratings showed viewership of the World Series of Poker's two-hour finale came up aces, drawing four times as many viewers as the biggest hockey game of the fall. Guys with names like Moneymaker holding a pair of deuces was more interesting to Americans than any defensive pair Team Canada could come up with against Finland.
It's a fact that illustrates exactly what NHL owners and players need to remember as they squander portions of their $2-billion business with every passing day of the lockout: Nobody in the U.S. cares.
So what if one-fifth of the league's teams are housed in hockey-mad Canadians cities where Joe Fan can name the likes and dislikes of his team's sixth defenceman?
What matters most is the future of the NHL lies in the fate of the American fans who, in large part, couldn't list the Original Six teams.
Try as they might, the NHL is nowhere near the same league as any of the other major sports. Their TV deals and ratings mirror the interest level that puts hockey below drunken gamblers, fishing derbies and even pro bowling telecasts.
Don't believe it?
Last year ESPN's 20 NHL games drew an average rating of .50, while ESPN2's telecast hovered around .20. The PBA (10-pin) Tour on ESPN attracted an .83 audience (730,000 households), bassmaster fishing was watched in 450,000 homes (.49) and Major League Soccer even toppled the NHL. The College World Series blew hockey away.
Given the NHL's laughable ratings, it's important to point out the key to survival lies in attendance, which will surely dip when hockey returns. Given how long it took Americans to return to the dear ol' ballyard following MLB's most recent labour stoppage, the NHL may never be able to get lost fans back.
Hockey is obviously the last thing on the minds of Americans now, which was evidenced by the fact news of Canada's World Cup win and the lockout announcement were the last items mentioned on ESPN Radio's updates yesterday. Pennant races are heating up, the NBA is just around the corner and the NFL has taken centrestage.
An ESPN sports poll taken last year found only 6.8% of respondents 'avid' hockey fans and when asked who their favourite player was more than half didn't cite anyone. They couldn't.
A lockout will do nothing to improve that, which is all the more reason why both sides must be reminded that if they don't get NHL hockey back on the ice and the tube soon they might as well toss in their cards.
Is that a gamble the players and owners are really willing to take?