Who’s Driving?

So it’s Saturday afternoon, and The Dude and I are looking to watch a period or two of hockey before we drive up to Hershey for Saturday night’s Bears-Monarchs game. We’re eating lunch, and I tell The Dude to go turn on the game.

“What channel?”

“Eleven. It’s on NBC today,” I say.

A few minutes later comes the sad reply.

“No dad, it’s not on. It’s some guy talking about horses.”

Ah yes, The Preakness. A two-minute race that requires a four-hour pregame show. I curse my hockey-loving lot for settling in Baltimore, where I’ve previously been pre-empted from watching Stanley Cup playoff hockey by college lacrosse. And now a horse race. A two-minute horse race that is still four hours away.

Come to find out later the whole nation got shipped off of NBC’s “coverage” of the Buffalo-Ottawa game (in overtime, no less!) when the Peacockers opted to go to The Preakness.

This sort of red-headed stepchild treatment is what NHL fans have grown accustomed to in the last several seasons. It’s like the scene in “This is Spinal Tap” when the band shows up for a gig only to find it has been given second billing to a puppet show. And this is the sort of thing that will ultimately kill overtime hockey in the playoffs, leading to the dreaded and dreadful shootout that the league wants to believe is such a big success.

Many of the NHL suits in NYC who are decision-makers have been hired away from other sports, and as such they don’t have the passion for hockey that us lifers (and even most recent converts) possess. If a TV exec approached them with a telecast deal that would pad the pockets of the league’s owners while replacing sudden death overtime with playoff shootouts (more “time-slot friendly,” dontcha know), does anyone think the suits would decline the money in favor of “the integrity of the game?”

Don’t everyone step forward at once.

The shootout is horrible and it’s getting worse. It’s a novelty right up there with other (sponsorable!) insults to the attention span of hockey fans such as human puck races, ice girls and whatever other needless distractions are being foisted on the hockey-watching public.

Here’s my question(s) to longtime fans of the game. Is the NHL a better game now than it was say 10, 15, 20 or 25 years ago? Is the game better with teams in Miami and Nashville and Phoenix instead of places like Quebec City and Winnipeg? Have any of the “improvements” brought to us hockey fans by marketing types in the last two decades made the game that much more enjoyable? How many of you would get up and leave if you were confronted with organ music at intermission instead of sumo ice wrestling, human puck races, monkey hockey or whatever other ice-wrecking entertainment is being foisted on you on any given night? Would you cancel your season tickets and never go to a game again if mascots suddenly became an extinct species?

I’m only asking because the health of the game seemed fine to me some 20, 25 years ago when few to none of these “accoutrements” existed. The NHL certainly had a bigger footprint in the North American sporting landscape and with the average fan on the street. That was before some people in some high places decided that a lot of things that weren’t broken needed fixing. Now hockey has become a niche sport (at best) with second-rate media coverage (if that).

To me, there’s nothing wrong with the game itself (besides the shootout). I don’t go around conducting focus groups and taking the pulse of the man on the street, but I travel a lot and I talk to a lot of hockey fans in a lot of places. And my sense is that they’re mostly happy with the game itself, but they’re not so happy with the way things are working off the ice, and they haven’t been happy with the way things have been working off the ice for a long time. They’re not interested in bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors and dogs and ponies. They want good hockey at a reasonable price, and they want to be able to watch hockey on TV when they’re not at the arena. That’s not at all unreasonable, but few of them seem to feel that their simple needs are being met. The Man Behind the Curtain is too concerned with meeting needs that don’t exist.

The Versus network is not getting it done for the NHL, nor is NBC. Let’s have an NHL network that operates 24/7/365, and let’s see more teams develop their own TV networks. For this to happen, we need the powers that be to dedicate much more time on these pressing matters rather than lining up “B” and “C” list celebs to write playoff blogs and other such trifles. Concentrate on the things that truly matter, please.

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12 Comments on “Who’s Driving?”

  1. Strikeman Says:

    Spot on mike, I was having the same thoughts after hearing about the NBC debacle on Saturday. Thankfully I had headed west to Hershey, what a great game to see. My first Bears game and they put up a 7 spot 🙂

    TJ


  2. The NHL seriously needs its own channel.

    I was so pissed off on Saturday…yay for living in MD, right? I should have known better than to expect to actually be able to watch a game that I was interested in seeing, not a gajillion hours of pre-horse race CRAP.

  3. Mark Tucker Says:

    Mike,

    AMEN Brother!
    I love the idea of the NHL Network expanding coverage, say to become part of the basic programming for the major cable/dish carriers. I imagine this is insanely expensive, but what business can grow without some capital (no pun intended) investment? What about a weekly hour-long Caps tv show on CSN?

    As for NBC… I have not watched much this year, and what I have seen is so formulaic and un-interesting, I can see why people aren’t tuning in. Why did the NHL sign-up with an outfit like NBC, whose ratings have been declining in general anyway? What were they to gain?

    Does no one want this product but the hunting and fishing channel????

    Something’s got to change!!!

  4. b.orr4 Says:

    I don’t blame NBC for cutting away. The ad money they made in that hour before the race probably exceeded the total ad revenue for the entire year of NHL hockey. And frankly Mike, I don’t blame Baltimore for revelling in their one day in the national spotlight. I do blame Bettman and his crowd for signing a contract that allowed this travesty to occur. They are so hell bent on putting the NHL on network TV that they have literally sold their collective souls to the devil. The league needs to disabuse itself of the notion that this great game can be packaged on a national level. History has proven that it won’t happen. The average TV viewing gerbil simply can’t wrap their heads around a sport that doesn’t stop play every 30 seconds. Quite honestly, they’re simply just not smart enough. (and don’t even get me started on Nascar). My advice is to forget network TV and forget trying to reach the truck driver in Alabama or the grandmother in Tupelo. They ain’t buying. Just give me my 82 games of Caps hockey (plus playoffs!), my center ice and hopefully the NHL network here in the States and I’ll be happier than the proverbial pig in ****. BTW, I went to the Saturday game in Hershey and that’s a town that gets hockey. If we could only transfer some of that fan frenzy to the Verizon Center.

  5. GoBucks9 Says:

    The NHL needs to take TSN/CBC and just air all of their coverage to the US. Not just the game, but the entire network.

    Screw VS, screw NBC. How hard is it to get a pregame show…an online show does NOT count.

    I personally don’t have anything against a good mascot. But I am from a different generation of sport fan.

  6. Jhershb Says:

    Excellent piece, Mike. Eliminating playoff OT would be a travesty, and I’m also getting sick of VS. (which I’m paying for but my cable company–RCN–can’t manage to receive properly despite almost two years of complaints).


  7. “They’re not interested in bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors and dogs and ponies. They want good hockey at a reasonable price, and they want to be able to watch hockey on TV when they’re not at the arena. That’s not at all unreasonable, but few of them seem to feel that their simple needs are being met. The Man Behind the Curtain is too concerned with meeting needs that don’t exist.”

    Spot-on up until the last part, Voges–the need that exists is the one need that fans of the hockey (the game) don’t care about: growing hockey (the business).

    “The average TV viewing gerbil simply can’t wrap their heads around a sport that doesn’t stop play every 30 seconds. Quite honestly, they’re simply just not smart enough. (and don’t even get me started on Nascar).”

    NASCAR doesn’t stop every 30 seconds, but its ratings (and the ratings of its AHL equivalent, the Busch series), smoke the NHL on its best days. Robert Gordon Orr.4, can I get you started on how that’s possible?

    “As for NBC… I have not watched much this year, and what I have seen is so formulaic and un-interesting, I can see why people aren’t tuning in. Why did the NHL sign-up with an outfit like NBC, whose ratings have been declining in general anyway? What were they to gain?”

    Why did the NHL go with NBC? Here’s a thought: maybe because no other network is foolish enough to waste its time and money with a regional sport that has shown no ability to grow beyond places where its not labelled “Ice Hockey” in the morning papers? Give NBC credit for making an effort–and blame the folks that aren’t watching.

    Pro hockey is a business. Plain and simple. It’s a failing business right now, but it’s a business nonetheless.

    Until the folks that run the business (the NHL and the owners) decide they are satisfied with whatever they are bringing in the door each year, money-wise, they will continue to bang their heads against the wall and try to make hockey work in non-hockey markets like Nashville, Atlanta, Anaheim, and (gulp) Washington, D.C. (Don’t take that personally, loyal Caps fans. Did you see your team’s average road gate this year? At least somebody is paying to watch Ovechkin play….)

    Pro hockey is a great game, but a lousy business. Unfortunately, from the hard-core fan’s point of view, the latter will continue to affect the former until the former is no longer true.

    (If it’s any consolation, NASCAR was a heck of a lot better back in the days when you folks didn’t even know it existed, so don’t think that hard-core fan base hasn’t paid a price for the sport’s so-called “success.” The games change, but the business is the same.)

  8. Betsy Says:

    Excellent as usual, Comrade Vogel.

    We have beat the subject of the NHL brain trust and marketing into the ground since we’ve known each other. Logical yet creative thinking, fueled by a great passion for hockey, is just NOT of interest to them. As you so correctly stated, a former sports (or Proctor & Gamble, PriceWaterhouse, fill in the blank, etc.) exec is of much more interest as a hire to grow the game.

    Bettman was a former Vezina Trophy winner then a longtime, successful NHL GM, right?

    I thought to myself last Saturday: “If I was a sports programming honcho at NBC “working” with the NHL, what would I do about the Preakness situation?” Hmmmm. Lowering my IQ, I quickly realized that Versus could possibly pick up the feed, interrupting their bass fishing finals or whatever tripe was airing if desired.

    Voile! There it was, continued on Versus. I caught the remainder of the elimination game, seeing more than what some of the Sabres players’ families probably did. I don’t recall NBC alerting fans to that important programming fact, but I suppose it was inconsequential anyhow. How many fans actually get Versus?

  9. pepper Says:

    I think first we have to recognize that players make far more than they did 15-20 years ago, and thus sponsorship money has to be squeezed out of every possible human bowling ball, or whatever the heck is dreamt up by marketing folks, opportunity.

    Indeed, though, all the distractions are just that, distractions from the pure enjoyment of the game. I enjoy watching the mites play during the intermissions – otherwise its just enough time to hit the facilities and get a drink.

    Versus I think does a good job and Comcast will see to it that its subscriber base expands. And I believe that there IS an NHL network, but no cable operator would pick it up over a myriad of other programming options allowing for greater subscriber fees.

    I do agree that the game was much more enjoyable with teams like Quebec and Winnipeg, and I dearly fear for our wonderful playoff format. I can only hope that those in control will realize that its more important to keep your core audience, allowing them to grow the sport, then to completely alienate them in the hopes of acquiring some quick advertising bucks and some new casual fans that will just as quickly dump hockey whenever some new ultimate fighting league starts up, or whatever (and which will cause the advertisers to leave, of course, as well).

  10. Britt Says:

    i was extreamly mad to see the Preakness race on when I wanted to see the good old hockey game! I live in Hawaii and it’s pretty hard to catch NHL hockey games. I’m a huge Caps fan but I’ll watch whatever i can get out here. I get LA Kings games and Anaheim Ducks games but I’m longing to see my Caps play again. The NHL needs to have their own channel and broadcast all the games. I’m sure they would make plenty of money off of the fans who love this great game! I’m still a fan of hockey all the way in Hawaii. Go Caps!!!

  11. Katie Says:

    Right on about this one! Here’s some food for thought. B.orr4 above said Hershey is a town that gets hockey… I agree… we live and breathe hockey up here. We have a better attendance than anyone else in the AHL, so it would seem that we’re a “marketable” area for hockey on tv… right? Wrong. We get every Steelers, Eagles, Phillies, Pirates, and Flyers game on every local channel. No Penguins, no Caps, unless they happen to be the “game of the week” on NBC or if they happen to be on versus. We can’t get Comcast Sportsnet Pittsburgh or Washington because we’re not “in the market” – only Philly – and I’d rather die than root for the Flyers. Then, when you spend the money and purchase Center Ice… this is the kicker… are you ready… Comcast blacks out the Caps and the Penguins game and tells us that we’re close enough that we should pick it up on local stations… the same local stations we can’t get because we’re not “in the market.” I’ve since invested in Satellite Radio. If I can’t get it on tv, at least I can go sit in the car and listen to it…

  12. Garrett Says:

    Heard Bettman on 980 who said the Preakness contract has been in place for years and they knew the risk. It wasn’t an NBC ‘decsion’ it was a contract obligation. The NHL, knowing this, had the option to put the entire game on Vs. but decided it would get a better audience on NBC – and in the event of an extended OT it would be switched to Vs. It’s unfortunate that the NHL has to make such decisions but they just don’t have the viewership to be calling all the shots.


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