March 15, 2005
NHL needs a TV partner
By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun
The reason that major-league sports are such an integral part of the lives of so many people in today's society can be summed up in one word: television.
The success of any sport is measured not by the number of people who watch it live, but by how many people watch it on television.
As a result, the relationship between the TV networks and successful sports leagues has become symbiotic. It represents a mutual back-scratching that allows each side to prosper.
Talk to the executives of the major American networks, all of whom show National Football League games, and each one will tell you that he sees the NFL as a partner.
The league and the sport are in business together, for their mutual benefit.
At the very core of the National Hockey League's woes is an inability to forge that kind of relationship.
There is nothing new in this. It's an affliction that has plagued the NHL for as long as there has been American television.
In the 1960s and '70s, the NHL had too many black holes on the American map to garner much interest from the big networks.
In the '80s, when ESPN was starting to make an impact, the NHL got in on the ground floor and had a golden opportunity to make some inroads.
But as was so often the case in those days, NHL president John Ziegler made the wrong decision and dumped ESPN in favour of SportsChannel.
Ziegler went for a quick cash grab ($51 million US for three years) to go to a network that served fewer than nine million households and had no outlets in such NHL cities as Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
The sports-oriented market that the NHL was grooming on ESPN was lost. Ever since, the NHL has bounced around, alienating one network after another and never making the kind of commitment that would be beneficial to both parties.
Granted, the NHL did make an occasional concession -- the Fox network fiasco with the glowing pucks being an example -- but it never addressed the key issue. The game simply was not entertaining enough to capture the imagination of the American viewer who was spoilt for choice.
The reasons are numerous, and have been spelled out on other occasions, but in a nutshell, too much attention was being paid to defence.
So now, with its game appearing on no television anywhere, the NHL has an opportunity to make amends and start over.
This is what the executives of NBC, the latest entrant into the NHL TV sweepstakes, has made clear.
As far as the network is concerned, the NHL is at Ground Zero. The NHL is nothing more than a cult sport, followed by a few devotees who make up such a small portion of the market that they aren't worth worrying about.
The network wants to give the NHL the arena-football treatment. The idea is that the two parties will work hand in hand to promote hockey and to build a fan base in the United States.
It's good for the network, which has reached a deal which requires no payments until it makes a profit. It's good for the league because it gets the sport back on the map in the United States.
The NHL's general managers know of this proposed arrangement and, when they meet in Detroit in early April, will have the job of trying to rebuild the game with new rules that make it entertaining to an American audience.
If they can do it, presumably Canadians will come back to the sport as well.
But if they fail, the NBC deal will probably follow suit.
And let's face it, if the NHL had decent TV revenues, it wouldn't have locked out its players, would it?