Saturday, August 20, 2005

 

Your Saturday Berger Fix

Quick Hockeybuzz.com and podcasting update. We are recording the first few podcasts this morning..they will be available shortly for your enjoyment. Also, we have been pretty much working round the clock on hockeybuzz.com as we prepare for the Sept 15th Launch date....there are still a few, very limited, advertising opportunities if you have a business that wants to get in front of the hockey world. email pelle@eklundshockeyreport.com, and I'll pass you along to our sales dept.

Now here's the latest from the man himself!

GIVE OLN A CHANCE

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590, Toronto

The National Hockey League’s rejection by ESPN and adoption by the Outdoor Life Network [OLN] may seem discouraging, as ESPN has long been the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting. Clearly, engaging in a rights-holder agreement with the cable colossus generates a level of prestige for any amateur or professional league, as the NFL and Major League Baseball will surely attest. But, none of that matters for hockey… nor should it.

As a critical factor, the connotation of being part of ESPN’s family did not apply to the NHL. Casual sports fans obviously were not drawn to hockey telecasts, simply because they were shown on ESPN or ESPN-2. There are any number of reasons why, and the root of the issue likely dates to its origin in the mid-1960s, when the NHL chose to double its membership in order to attract nationwide TV affluence in the U.S. Expanding westward, beyond Chicago – particularly into populace California – was thought to be the path of fortune for the league, both financially and in terms of awareness and popularity. Regrettably, the strategy did not work back then, nor has it panned out in the interim. Professional hockey – despite the commendable efforts of many people – has almost always been a regional, or niche sport in the U.S., and will likely remain as such. On only one occasion did the sport threaten to infiltrate a larger segment of the American viewing public... when the New York Rangers ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994 by knocking off Vancouver in a scintillating Final. But, the league, itself, destroyed whatever momentum had developed by shutting down for business at the start of the following season and the NHL as a nationwide TV property has never recovered from that damaging, 103-day lockout.

Others will suggest that the monotony of watching hockey in the so-called “dead puck era” was primarily responsible for the declining TV numbers. I’m not sure I subscribe to that theory, simply because the NHL wasn’t threatening to overtake football, baseball or basketball as a viewing commodity during the splendor of the 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Mario Lemieux, Peter Stastny, Denis Savard and other puck wizards gave us a thrilling, wide-open spectacle every night. Some will say that the NHL’s unwillingness to ban fighting caused sports viewers to observe the game as they do wrestling or roller derby… as a put-on, or a sham. Still others contend that hockey is simply not understood in far too many areas of the U.S., and this is where I tend to lean. Baseball, basketball and football are played and watched in all corners of the country, and at all levels (high school, college, minor-pro). Hockey has forever been seen as a provincial sport, played in the northernmost regions where the climate allows for winter-like pursuits. It has never been even remotely allied with popular, every day activities in places like New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska – States that routinely identify with the other major pro sports. And the league has not yet made strong enough inroads in areas relatively new to the game – Arizona, Florida and the Carolinas.

As a result, the NHL’s affiliation with ESPN was never much of a factor. And that’s why I believe that the new partnership with Comcast/OLN will be more than adequate. Times have changed in the past 35 years, but the concept of NFL games in prime time – routine today – was scoffed at prior to the advent of ABC’s Monday Night Football (in 1970). What fledgling ABC did (and what powerful NBC and CBS were unwilling to try) was make football the centerpiece of a larger entertainment package. It was the first network to utilize a three-man broadcast crew, and the actual games often played second-fiddle to the shenanigans in the TV booth of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. ABC made football seem like a priority, and not just another three-hour endeavor. Within five years, the once-nonsensical concept of evening football became the No. 1-rated prime time television show in the U.S. Hockey, I believe, has a grand opportunity right now, particularly if the rules to be introduced this season serve to make the game more appealing.

If Comcast/OLN adopts the NHL as its pet-project, the way ABC adopted football in 1970, the possibilities are immense. And that’s not to suggest that ESPN turned out a second-rate hockey telecast. Everything about the production was top-notch, from the camera-work, the graphics, and, of course, the on-air personalities. Its ownership affiliation with ABC brought hockey viewers instantly recognizable figures like Al Michaels and Chris Berman for Stanley Cup telecasts. But, there was always the feeling – justifiable or not – that hockey was little more than a time-filler for ESPN. I would watch regulars Gary Thorne, Mike Emerick, Bill Clement, John Saunders, John Buccigross and Barry Melrose, and often feel for them, knowing that their best efforts were not generating large audiences. In my country, the likes of Ron MacLean, Don Cherry, Bob Cole and Harry Neale had no such problem. I remember flying with Saunders – who once worked in my home-town, Toronto – while I covered the 2004 Western Conference Final between San Jose and Calgary. Normally a jovial sort, John seemed particularly forlorn on this occasion, and not in the mood to chat. Figuring he might be dealing with a personal issue, I respected his disposition. During the ensuing flight, however, I was reading USA TODAY when I came upon a story by sports-TV columnist Rudy Martzke that suggested ESPN’s hockey telecasts were lagging behind championship arm-wrestling in the ratings. And I quickly realized how bummed out I’d be in Saunders’ position.

Thorne, Emerick, Clement, Saunders, Buccigross and Melrose are consummate professionals, who gave their best for the sport on ESPN. I’m hoping they all get the chance to continue their pursuits with Comcast/OLN. And if the network quickly leaves the impression that hockey is its No. 1 property, perhaps that mentality alone will help to attract larger audiences. The league must step up and find a way to market its personalities the way NASCAR has promoted its drivers. And the game itself certainly has to become more of a spectacle than it’s been in recent years. It isn’t realistic to expect hockey will usurp the other major pro sports, or even pull alongside any of them. But the game, as a TV entity, has the potential to grow far beyond its current boundaries. If you’re a fan, give Comcast/OLN a big chance, and disregard the meaningless connotation of the NHL no longer being a part of ESPN. Both parties can do without the other.

E-mail comments to howard.berger@rci.rogers.com.



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