Here's a couple of non-judgmental questions for those of you that skipped out on Games 1 & 2 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. Apparently, there are about 347 million of you in America and about 33 million of you in Canada, so please form a single file line for your responses.
If Zach Parise showed up on Keeping Up with the Kardashians as Khloe's new boyfriend, would you watch more hockey?
If Dustin Brown did some sort of weird, lewd, photoshoot with famed pixie pervert Terry Richardson, like his former teammate Sean Avery did, would Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals be set up on your DVR?
If Tim Thomas was in a commercial that played around the clock for an entire season, would you... oh, never mind. I promised only a couple of questions.
There's this idea that hockey doesn't draw good TV ratings because there are no individual stars in the sport. That is a load of nonsense. Individual stars don't drive ratings on television, whether it's sports or regular entertainment. Anybody watch that new Tim Allen sitcom this year? Or that NBC show centered around Chelsea Handler? Matthew Perry has been all around the Stanley Cup Finals, do you really think his new NBC sitcom this fall lasts more than six shows? These people are all stars, why did no one watch their TV shows?
Television is entirely narrative based. You develop storylines over seasons, and then you pay them off at the end of those seasons. The NFL is the best at this. They have a short season (about the length of a good reality show) and because they're on TV more than anything other than the President, they're able to develop those storylines via analysts, who make breaking the game down to the layman very simple.
Basketball and golf are the next best, because they have the only two people in sports who are recognized as public figures in Tiger Woods and LeBron James. Those two have lifetime narratives developed around them, as if their entire careers have been one scripted soap opera. Basketball is also good in that it's television schedule is almost always a meritocracy. If your team is good one year, they'll get a lot of appearances on ABC, ESPN and TNT next year. Unless the team comes out and is terrible, then they'll get flexed out later in the year, perhaps for a team that came out of nowhere to be very good.
Baseball has seen it's ratings sag over the years, and many blame it on the over-hyping of the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. Rivalry marketing was absolutely successful, though, because it developed narratives and entertaining subplots throughout its peak era. Anything could happen on any given night. Baseball, however, has gotten a lot better at showing a lot of their franchises (especially when FOX loads up on 5-6 games on Saturday nights) so that people know who the stars are by the time the post-season comes around.
Which brings us to my beloved game of hockey, and my original point at the start of this piece. Adrian Dater has covered the Colorado Avalanche for the Denver Post quite literally since the team's move to the city from Quebec in 1995 (he broke the story of the team moving to Colorado, as chronicled in his excellent book about the Wings/Avs rivalry, Blood Feud). He's a fiery guy (a native Bostonian, for whatever that connotes to you) and often takes the persona of that guy at the bar who'll just say something to see if he can tick you off. He can occasionally turn into the hockey writer version of Claude Lemieux or Alex Burrows, but he is typically newsworthy and usually has at least a germ of truth whenever he speaks his mind.
Let's get straight to the point here, though: his column from yesterday, "NHL games won't pull big crowds till players stop being so nice," is absolute bunk. Swings and misses of this multitude are usually reserved for the big-time paper columnists like Jay Mariotti. You know, the guy who covers "general sports", writes about hockey maybe once or twice a year and usually uses the space to take some sort of potshot at the sport as a whole.
Here's the crux of Dater's argument: NHL players -- the meanest when on the playing surface in sport -- are just too nice and too focused on the team rather than on themselves, and that's why the ratings for the Stanley Cup Finals suck. Read the main passage:
Many years ago, I got into a debate with Brett Hull about the issue of why the NHL always seemed to have poor U.S. TV ratings. "The league doesn't promote the players," said Hull, then with the Dallas Stars.
Maybe that was part of the problem, I said. But the much larger problem was: You guys don't promote yourselves. You're all nice guys, I said. You're great to deal with, the best in pro sports. But you're too vanilla. It's endearing to much of the hockey fan base, I added, but the fact is that too many players go unnoticed by the general U.S. sports fan because of their "there are no stars here, it's all about the team, don't say anything that will dispel that here" modus operandi.
First of all, Hull is totally right. Even in 2012, what have been the commercials spotlighting individual hockey players of late? Tim Thomas and Patrick Kane with Peggy in the Discover Card ads. There haven't been good advertisements focusing on individual players since Hull's heyday in the 90's, when the FOX network got plenty of mileage out of promoting the players with creative spots, like this one:
Sure, it's a little hokey, but it's a brilliant idea and it creates a narrative around two of hockey's most transcendent athletes: Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, together again after all of those years in Edmonton. What will happen when two of the biggest stars in hockey reunite for one more go at the Stanley Cup? The 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs remain one of the highest-rated in history. Messier and Gretzky took the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals. Narrative developed and nearly paid off. People tuned in. Not one person has ever thought of Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky as anything but "nice guys".
The fact is, hockey hasn't had an interesting national storyline since Mario Lemieux came out of retirement. They've tried with Sidney Crosby -- and his continued comeback from multiple concussions may well still develop into such a story --but it hasn't taken, mostly because it always seems like the NHL has been too afraid to go full boar with Crosby. That and the fact that the league has rarely done a good job promoting itself outside of the insular hockey bubble. You and I, the hardcore hockey fans, know that Ilya Kovalchuk is awesome, but does the casual sports fan? Probably not.
The NHL's strategy on television, sadly, has been the opposite of that of the NBA. It's based on big markets that will guarantee them big ratings. Eight NHL teams -- out of 30 -- appeared on the NBC national Game of the Week (a few others were seen once on a regional broadcast in February). Three of the four teams that made the conference finals had not appeared on NBC once during the regular season. Five of the eight teams that made it to the second round hadn't had a national game on NBC, four not appearing on the network at all. Neither Stanley Cup Finalist got onto NBC before the Conference Semifinals. See what I'm getting at here?
The Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils were undeveloped narratives. The Devils made six appearances on NBC Sports Network during the regular season, but they are rarely the main focus of those broadcasts. The Kings made six appearances on NBC too, but all of them were on the road. Some of them didn't air exclusively on NBC Sports Network in the home market of the opposing team. Neither of them got to NBC national before round two. Is it really any surprise that the ratings have been low?
If the NHL found a way to do more regional games on NBC, more teams could be featured and get national exposure. Why not air two games each week NBC has coverage? Split them regionally, and the game you don't see on NBC gets broadcast on NBC Sports Network or NHL Network. That way you get four teams get big-time network exposure without keeping anyone from seeing the game based on market limitations. The best promotion for the game is always what's on the ice, so why not make more of what you see on the ice available to the fans? Get more games, but most importantly, get more teams on national television.
A couple more points to bat off from Dater before this is over. There's this, a classic crack at the Devils:
Fact is, New Jersey and Los Angeles are full of excellent players - with some of the highest-paid in the NHL. But they're unknown to the Joe Sixpacks out there because of their button-down, keep-it-quiet organizational philosophies. Martin Brodeur is probably the best-known player in the series - as well he should be - but the Devils have always been a terrible national draw. Even in their own market, they don't draw; New Jersey ranked 24th in the 30-team league in attendance this season, at 15,396 per game. (The non-playoff Avalanche ranked 23rd).
Now, the Devils attendance is what it is. It has been a problem for many years, and though it appears to have turned a corner at times in Newark, I'll leave that for another day, because the attendance is bad during the regular season. But New Jersey's been far from television cancer in the past. Game 7 between the Devils and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim -- both typically known as the No. 2 team in their local markets -- is the fourth-most watched Game 7 of all-time. Ratings for the Devils' three other Stanley Cup Finals (against Detroit in 1995, Dallas in 2000, and an extremely narrative-driven series against Colorado in 2001) have drawn reasonably good numbers.
Not only that, but as recently as 2010, the Devils were as high as 7th among U.S. teams in terms of viewers watching games locally, and let's be honest, hockey has always been driven nationally by big local markets. But when you get two teams that don't get much play nationally and don't play each other much, you don't have much to build off of. Also, let's not forget that the NHL has often acted like it's west coast teams don't exist. The last time a team west of Minnesota appeared on NBC nationally in the regulars was in 2008. That's four years ignoring a lot of teams.
Getting back to Dater's original point, he wraps up the piece saying this:
Maybe the ratings will improve as the series goes along, but don't count on it. Should NHL players make spectacles of themselves with outrageous comments and/or be selfish self-promoters? Well, I don't want that, really. But if you want to be noticed in this country, to get people talking and tuning in, you can't be too vanilla.
This has been the NHL Players' Association's problem for a long time, and until hockey figures out how to stand out more, it will continue to get ratings near the bottom of the big-sports totem pole.
No, the players wouldn't be better served by being more outrageous. Fact is, it really doesn't matter if they're nice guys or self-promoting jerks. It's not as if Mike Richards and Jeff Carter didn't have a big reputation back in Philly for having the occasional extra-curricular activity. Did it get more people into the game? No. Philadelphia didn't even crack the top five in local ratings, despite having multiple ex-Flyers on the Kings and an ex-Flyer coach. What the NHL could have done was asked it's TV partners and promotional people to set up the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a redemption narrative for the two former Philadelphians. Chased out of their old home to winning a Cup, perhaps, in their new one.
Every year, baseball gets more and more vanilla and the ratings for the regular season games head closer and closer to hockey's. But their World Series is still capable of drawing 25 million viewers, as it did last year. Because of the narratives. Albert Pujols' potential last hurrah with the Cardinals, the Rangers looking for redemption after last year's loss, "Holy Crap Game 6!".
Hockey should've have been hitting home things like Carter and Richards, Brodeur's last chance at glory, both captains are stars from that American Olympic team you all loved so much (and drew 27 million viewers on NBC), Anze Kopitar is freaky awesome. But no, we get those vague "Because It's The Cup" ads. The NHL says the Stanley Cup is it's best draw, but only because they've never actually tried promoting the guys who try to win it. That's what TV's about, whether it's Heroes or hockey heroes and villains.