Sunday, 17 June 2007

Revisiting That Social Fabric

If all you see is static to the left, do not adjust your monitor. The problem with the picture is that it represents most people's televisions in the United States when it comes to hockey on television. I went out on a limb in March with my Part Of Our Social Fabric article and basically said that the NHL was force-feeding a sport to Americans who had never been exposed to it, and, as a result, have not embraced it whatsoever. I don't think anyone from ESPN reads this blog with the exception of Mr. Paul Lukas. However, it appears that Gene Wojciechowski decided to tackle the same issue on June 15th. In reading Jibblescribbits' blog, I discovered that Wojciechowski basically made the same argument as me, although he came across a little more harshly than I did (in my opinion).

Why am I writing about this? For starters, it took a major sports network almost three months to "report" on what I had pointed out. Wojciechowski even goes as far as saying that "[t]he reality is that hockey isn't part of this country's sports DNA. Canada, yes. The USA, no". In my article, I made the same "profound statement", as described by Brad, that "[t]he Original Six teams were bred into us, almost telling us genetically who to cheer for".

Now I'm not saying that I am better than Mr. Wojciechowski. In fact, he's a heck of a good writer for ESPN, and I enjoy his insights. The problem that I have with his examination of the NHL is that he is addressing an issue that no one cares about in the United States when there is Major League Baseball going on, the US Open golf tournament going on, and NASCAR races going on.

I can't tell you how many hits his page has had. I can't tell you if he's received any comments on his article. I do know that it is a fairly well-written piece that basically tells the American public that they aren't watching, and is a somewhat backhanded slap to the NHL's face in terms of their business model. Again, he's preaching to the choir. The American public know they aren't watching. In fact, they aren't reading or caring about the NHL, especially when there are other sports being played that they are watching.

I don't know what to think of the timing of the release of this article. If no one watched the Stanley Cup Finals, does anyone care about one writer's thoughts on no one watching? Mr. Wojciechowski identifies the problems with the NHL, but does little to offer solutions to these problems. And what bothers me more is his laisser-faire attitude towards the biggest sports network in the United States dropping the NHL.

"The NHL used to be on ESPN, where it didn't exactly get top billing, but at least you knew where to find the league and Barry Melrose's mullet on your remote" is what was written. Yes, we're all aware that it didn't get top billing. Hell, it barely received five minutes of airtime most nights, and the NHL was lucky to have highlights shown of games not involving the Rangers, Kings, Blackhawks, or Sharks. I understand the concept of not biting the hand that feeds you, but I find it hard to stomach Mr. Wojciechowski's argument when he puts little blame on "The Worldwide Leader In Sports". They have a responsibility to report the news objectively and without prejudice, yet the NHL gets as much Sportscenter coverage as competitive lawn darts.

"Objectively and without prejudice" is quite a profound statement. Can a reporter make a commentary while being objective? My answer is no, but one shouldn't be allowed to take pot-shots at a league that is trying to find ways to break through the fog. If one needs a comparison, Sportcenter celebrated the return of baseball from its strike by showing highlights from every game for the first ten minutes of Sportscenter every single night. Should hockey not get the same credit, especially since it is the major winter sport in North America?

Brian Burke, GM for the Anaheim Ducks, made an interesting statement about hockey in the southern Untied States: "[a]lmost every kid in America plays football, baseball or basketball. All you need is a field or cement court. 'But you can't just be a hockey player,' he says. 'It's complicated. It's difficult. It's expensive. So we don't have a ready-made fan base'". And that's absolutely true. However, ESPN can and should do more to help the NHL grow its fanbase. I don't need to be told that it's all about bottom-line with ESPN as they are owned by Disney, the same company that sold the Anaheim franchise a couple of years ago. I understand that money is money, and if ESPN isn't making money, they won't last very long.

The NHL is not the NFL. It won't be a multi-billion dollar industry for at least a decade. The difference is that someone took a chance on the NFL's business model and gave them a television contract on a major network. Through the gains and losses, the NFL now has the most lucrative television contract known to man. ESPN has shows devoted to the NFL. The NHL has none. See the problem?

I guess what this boils down to is my dislike for Mr. Wojciechowski's article in that he questions the way the NHL goes about its business, but does nothing to solve those issues. He shouldn't have to be responsible for solving anything, but any idea at this point would be a good idea. I also am not blaming ESPN 100% for this problem with the NHL's television ratings. However, I am blaming them for calling themselves "The Worldwide Leader in Sports" when they really don't give a damn about anything that won't get them ratings. That, in itself, is an insult to the NHL, and perhaps the NHL should remember this if and when they start climbing the ratings ladder again. If the Worldwide Leader wants to get in on the NHL, they should at least have the guts to lead Sportscenter with hockey once in a while.

If no one watches hockey in the United States, and the biggest sports network ignores it like it has a contagious disease, how can you grow the game? It's a lesson in futility.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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