A year after returning from a labor dispute and a canceled season, the NHL is fighting the perception that it is a niche sport. Saddled with TV ratings lower than those for NASCAR and poker, and selling a sport whose players are overwhelmingly white to countries that are increasingly diverse, the NHL must find new ways to win fans’ hearts and sponsors’ dollars.
Its past efforts have failed spectacularly, particularly at clarifying its rules and dispelling the myth that its players are toothless Canadian lumberjacks. After allowing the game to stagnate for a decade, the NHL last season introduced rules that sped up play and boosted scoring, giving it a good product to sell. Its sales methods, however, have had all the impact of a whisper at a rock concert.
Television drives every league, and the NHL’s vehicle is a go-kart carrying it on the road to ruin.
A year ago, with its season about to start and ESPN refusing to pay big bucks to renew its rights deal, a desperate NHL aligned itself with OLN, now known as Versus when it’s mentioned at all. Either side can end that agreement after this season.
If the NHL is serious about becoming a major player, it must flee Versus, crawl over broken glass if need be, and beg ESPN to take it back.
Like it or not, ESPN is ingrained in our sports culture. NHL executives were furious that under the previous deal, ESPN cut its NHL coverage after it added the NBA. However, a profit-sharing deal with the NHL would give ESPN incentive to restore hockey to prominence.
“ESPN provides the sort of Good Housekeeping stamp of approval,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon and a hockey fan. The NHL, he said, “would be better off finding a working partnership between themselves and ESPN. If it were my decision, and not knowing the reason, this league needs as many symbolic attachments to maintain their position as a major professional sport.”
Versus’ appeal had three prongs: It was willing to give the NHL lots of airtime, it was willing to pay a rights fee, and it was there. It hasn’t grown fast enough to give the NHL the exposure it needs, having only recently extended its reach to 70 million homes, 20 million fewer than ESPN and ESPN2. Nor has Versus created a distinct identity that separates it from its competitors in the cable universe.
“If we were going to grow, we needed to do something different,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in defending the deal. “While we gave up some distribution, the coverage was phenomenal. They will continue to grow over time and we think as a result, people will see better coverage of hockey.”
Bettman said Versus has committed extensive resources and money to its growth, but its exclusive coverage of the Ducks-Oilers Western Conference final series last spring was unavailable in much of Orange County, a severe blow to the Ducks.
Brian Burke, the Ducks’ general manager, compared the NHL’s alliance with Versus to its deal with a then-young ESPN2. But ESPN2 had the support of its parent and a familiar name; it also faced less competition than Versus does now.
“I think they’ve done a nice job with our product,” Burke said of Versus. “The carriage issue is another issue, and we’ve made it clear that’s paramount to us.”
Improving the quality and content of telecasts is one issue the league has addressed.
It’s banking on the growth of high-definition TV, which Bettman said will be “like throwing a light switch” because of its detail and wider format. Also, John Shannon, the NHL’s senior vice president of broadcasting and former executive producer of “Hockey Night in Canada,” has educated production personnel about the art of hockey broadcasting. That should help: From a lifetime around the game, Canadian TV crews can usually anticipate and capture plays better than their American counterparts, making Canadian telecasts superior.
Bettman also said 75 features will be aired on local and national TV, offering insights into players whose features are obscured by helmets and pads.
“We are going to market and promote our players in ways we didn’t do before because now we have the cooperation of the players,” he said, referring to the new labor agreement. “The game on ice, our financial stability, all these things will enable us to do things we never did before.”
Next, the NHL must deal with its schedule.
For the second straight season, teams will play eight games against each division foe but won’t face a division in the opposite conference. Pacific teams didn’t play the Atlantic Division last season, missing Sidney Crosby and a big drawing card in the New York Rangers. This season they won’t see Boston, Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, a travesty that cheats fans.
“I would like to see us play every team in the other conference at least once a year,” said Cliff Fletcher, who has been involved in club management since 1969 and is the Phoenix Coyotes’ senior executive vice president of hockey operations. “This year there’s three of the Original Six teams that we won’t play either in their building or our building. I think it’s important. I hope that’s addressed.”
Next, the NHL should determine whether 30 teams is the right number and whether those teams are in the right places. The Penguins’ difficulty in getting a new arena in Pittsburgh spawned speculation they might move to Hamilton, Canada, and long-term prospects are unclear for several Sunbelt teams. The strong Canadian dollar might help reverse the southward migration of franchises.
The lone constant in NHL history is its unerring knack for self-destruction. It seemed poised for a boom after the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup triumph but killed the buzz when it locked players out the subsequent season and settled for a disastrous labor deal. It allowed dull defense-oriented tactics to rob the game of its speed and skill. One more mistake and Bettman will be remembered as the man who made the NHL irrelevant.
Helene Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.