Stuck under a rock

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

It was five minutes before the National Lacrosse League's all-star game was to hit NBC last Saturday and the buzz at Bally's race and sports book in Las Vegas was palpable.

Huddled up with fresh Budweisers, betting slips and beer nuts, large clusters of men gathered around dozens of tables with heads tilted high towards the massive wall of TV screens.

Just before opening faceoff, an anxious Calgary scribe approached the ticket wicket with hopes of placing a few bucks on the east.

When asked what the line was on the game, the bookmaker laughed. When told no sportsbook in Vegas would post odds for something like that, the would-be bettor asked if one of the monitors would show the game emanating from Calgary's 'Dome.

"Not even if Jesus was a centre," he chortled.

Similar inquiries at Caesar's and MGM Grand were also dismissed, with not one TV dedicated to an all-star showing of Canada's national sport. The few televisions not showing college basketball featured the gee-gees from every horseracing venue from Yonkers to Tampa Bay Downs.

In a city where wagers can be made on everything from the Oscars to Arena Football, the NLL didn't exist.

Turns out the rest of the country felt roughly the same way.

Overnight Nielsen ratings for the game came in at 0.8, which translates into 800,000 households watching all or part of the lunchtime tilt.

Considering NBC didn't promote a game making its network debut, NLL officials were happy with the numbers.

The point of trotting out such anecdotal evidence above is not to embarrass the NLL but to demonstrate just how easily replaced the NHL is.

Last year ABC paid the NHL $50 million US (and spent millions more in promotion) for rights to Saturday games which drew a -- wait for it -- 1.1 rating.

Conversely, the NLL paid NBC for two hours of airtime and drew a 0.8.

Do the math and it's clear things didn't add up for the NHL as we knew it, never mind whatever sorry state it will return in.

What's more, ESPN paid $60 million for the NHL rights last year and drew an average rating of 0.2. Its replacement programming is currently averaging 0.4, with a cheap show called Tilt drawing a whopping 1.1.

No wonder ESPN is threatening to sever NHL ties on April 15.

Games 1 and 2 of last spring's Stanley Cup Final on ESPN grabbed a 1.2 rating. Pathetic.

The folks at NBC -- which now owns the NHL rights -- were so happy with the NLL's "test product" they offered to extend the two-hour window by up to eight minutes had the game's overtime been extended to a shootout.

It was high scoring, hard-hitting and highly entertaining, even if Americans had no idea what was going on.

Truth is, they know little about hockey as well.

Interestingly, the NLL game has led to discussions with NBC about the possibility of a game of the week next year. Geez -- wonder what it might replace...

NLL commish Jim Jennings wasn't surprised at the rating.

"We didn't bomb -- we did about what we thought," he said yesterday.

"All in all, considering the deal got thrown together last minute and the game wasn't promoted, we were pleased. We held the rating for NBC -- it was a typical rating for that time slot. We were basically crawling out from under a rock."

Interesting way to put it Jim, as the NHL has been stuck underneath one for quite some time.


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