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On thin ice

The NHL's woeful TV deal just proves it's no longer a major sport

Posted: Friday May 21, 2004 4:17PM; Updated: Friday May 21, 2004 4:17PM
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The Big Four can now finally be sliced to the Big Three, and it's about time.

After the NHL signed its no-money-down TV deal with NBC this week, can we all stop pretending that hockey is still a major professional sport? Hockey is now officially on the same level as Arena football, the model for NBC's revenue-sharing (read: "we'll write you checks when we're good and ready") deal.

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The NHL had been getting $120 million a year from ABC and ESPN in the contract that expires after this year's Stanley Cup finals. ESPN2 will still pony up $60 million next season -- if there is a next season -- but NBC won't fork over a dime to the league until (or unless) it breaks even.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can spin this deal all he wants. He can talk about the "level of nurturing" that NBC will provide. He can say that "the future for us on national television couldn't be more bright."

The fact remains that the NHL signed a deal that a sports league takes only because it possesses absolutely no leverage. That's what happens when your ratings are lower than poker, bowling and -- yes -- Arena football.

As Westley said to the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride, lies do not become us. Puckheads, it's time to face the truth. South of the Canadian border, at least, hockey is not a major sport.

Stop sending letters to the editor about how hockey is ignored by your favorite sports publication. In fact, it is accorded a respect that far outweighs its interest to most readers.

Let's count the pastimes that rank above hockey in terms of national interest: the NFL, the NBA, baseball, college football and college basketball, NASCAR and golf, at the very least. Big Four? Hockey, like Northwestern, is fortunate to stick in the Big Ten.

This is from someone who grew up a hockey fan. In my Long Island grammar school in 1979, after the Rangers upset the President's Cup-winning Islanders in the playoffs, we split our recess kickball games into Islanders fans vs. Rangers fans.

I played on the Islanders team, which was actually overmatched. The same front-running guys who rooted for the Steelers and Cowboys generally jumped on the Rangers' bandwagon. Most of the girls sided with the local team, in part because they thought Clark Gillies and Wayne Merrick were cute.

We Islanders fans were wiped out on the kickball field, but everyone -- boys and girls -- identified themselves as hockey fans

When Bobby Nystrom won the Islanders' first Stanley Cup a year later with an overtime goal in Game 6 against the Flyers, I heard the radio broadcast while playing in a baseball All-Star game. (Sadly, I went 0-for-3.) For four years, I rode my bike to the victory parades along Hempstead Turnpike.

I listened to the four-overtime game in which the Islanders beat the Capitals in Game 7 of the Patrick Division semis in my parents' kitchen in 1987. 'Twas the night before Easter, and I was coloring the family's eggs. I was long done with the PAAS by the time Pat LaFontaine, who married a girl from my parish, slotted home the game-winner.

It was only when I arrived at college that I realized not everyone was a big hockey fan, that in fact it is a regionalized sport no less than is NASCAR (if now only a fraction as popular).

My idiot buddies and I would spend tens of hours debating things like which is harder, bowling a 300 game or getting a hit off Roger Clemens (it all depends on what parameters one sets). But most of my friends had never followed hockey, so we rarely talked about it.

Gradually I lost touch with the game. When the Islanders show some life, I start watching them again. I love scoring a free ticket to an Islanders, Rangers or Devils game, because hockey is terrific to see live. But I haven't watched a single NHL playoff game this season.

I don't dislike hockey at all. I just don't care enough to make time for it right now, and I think that's how most sports fans feel. There are too many other things to watch on TV. (I've even heard rumors that some people don't actually watch hours of TV every night, but I couldn't confirm that as of press time.)

I have also enjoyed Fox's Arrested Development, for example, the few times that I've seen it. What's not to like about a show starring Jason Bateman, who's been terrific since It's Your Move? Unfortunately, Arrested Development lost its TiVo showdown to fellow timeslot contenders such as The Sopranos and Alias, shows with which I've had a longer relationship.

Just as TV critics like to write columns scolding people for not "supporting" shows like Arrested Development, this column will likely draw angry mail from hockey fans who regard their sport with near-religious fervor.

And that's fine. Hockey is a terrific sport. It's just not especially popular with the average American sports fan, so let's stop acting like it is.

Can the NHL do anything to recapture the public stage that, frankly, it never really occupied in the first place? Well, it wouldn't hurt to increase scoring, which next year's rule limiting the puck-handling of goalies might help. It's a bad sign when the best-known hockey player in the world is probably the retired Wayne Gretzky, who became famous for smashing offensive records.

Maybe, though, it's best if Bettman and serious hockey fans simply lower their expectations. Hockey has plenty to offer, but in terms of interest it ranks in the middle of the pack among the many sports options available to the American fan, and the trend lines are all pointing down.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to watching Arena football.

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