Technically speaking, readers, today (Tuesday) is Business Day One of the workweek. So though I didn’t post on Monday, I don’t think I’m entirely in default for my weekly commitment. Thank the good lord for sweet technicalities – they’re the only thing that keeps me going. Anyway, let’s do this.

NHL LogoI logged on to ESPN this morning and was legitimately stunned that the front-page article up was about Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. I was half-expecting news about Roger Clemens’ minor league start or something about the Spurs-Jazz series. But no. There was an honest to goodness hockey article up there. There is in-depth analysis around this now-marginalized sport on one of America’s most frequented websites, and it is putting me in a very odd place, sportsmotionally.

I grew up in New Jersey, and pulled for the Devils about as hard as I pulled for the Football Giants. That is, dramatically less than the Yankees but vastly more than the Van Horn-era Nets. I went to Devils games with some regularity, despite the astonishing ticket prices. I attended the parking lot celebrations after they won their Stanley Cups. I revered Martin Brodeur as a supernatural being of nigh-unstoppable power. Back then, being an actual hockey fan was rare, but never unheard of.

Lord Stanley’s CupNowadays, it seems, the only hockey fans in Jersey are sitting in shacks in the Pine Barrens, emerging once a week to watch a game on Versus at their local moonshinery. Up here in Boston, home of one of the most storied franchises in the sport’s history, the Garden is 20% empty most nights. “It’s Called Bruins” is now a punchline. And one that I use often, by the way.

So what caused this? The simple answer (and in sports, simple answers are so rare that this is actually refreshing) is the strike/television coverage debacle. Losing a year’s worth of hockey and then throwing it onto the Outdoor Life Network (which has about 20 million less subscribers than ESPN) is not a great way to keep a fanbase. We’re dealing with the aftermath of the hockey apocalypse. And the NHL brass needs to scrape and claw to win back the support it lost. Sure, the die-hards are still there, biding their time in their Pine Barren hovels, but the casual fans have been replaced by empty bench seating.

I’m not really sure how I feel about the whole thing. I still check Devils scores, and an vaguely aware at any given point that the Bruins are in the midst of a three game points-less streak. But considering I’m a 24/7 sports fan and all I give to hockey is about 15 seconds out of my day, that doesn’t bode well for the league. On one hand, I’m enjoying my extra free time. But on the other, I feel for the kids in Minnesota and Michigan whose lives revolve around a sport that very few people care about anymore.

The old Serpico is glad that the Ducks had an amazing third period against Ottawa and the world gets to read about it. But the new Serpico could stand to see a bit more NFL off-season coverage.

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  • Pedro

    For the record, it wasn’t a strike. It was a lockout. Subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

    Also, while wikipedia-ing that little nitpick, I came across this article, which makes a good point

    http://www.hamiltonspectator.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=hamilton/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1163458215626&call_pageid=1020420665036&col=1014656511815

    Hockey didn’t bounce back from the lockout because the lockout happened during the rise of televised poker. Think about how much poker is on TV today and, if it were a sport, where it would rank among U.S. sports in popularity.

    Televised poker is attractive to cable TV stations like ESPN for the same reason reality TV grew to ridiculous proportions and hockey has problems — the production process is vertically integrated and the content providor is either wholly owned by the distributor or doesn’t have any bargaining power.

    As a producer, writers’ and actors’ guilds and owners’ groups cost you money. If you can just circumvent them and own the content yourself, you don’t have to deal with them.

    The problem with the League was that they misdiagnosed where the squeeze was coming from — they thought they were getting outnegotiated by the players and that they had the muscle to put the screws to them, but really they were the ones being muscled by the media companies.

    The owners weren’t in the position to put the screws to anybody, they basically had to do everything they could to provide the networks with hockey and thank them for whatever they were paid. They failed to do that because they, like so many bigwigs, assumed that cracking their labor force would make them more money than getting their product to market.

    This is why the private equity offer for the NHL was so intriguing — if you take the owners out of the equation, the NHL is a great value proposition. With entrenched ownership and management, they’re going to insist on a bigger margin than they’re entitled to structurally and ruin it for everybody.

  • Pedro, there is one thing I don’t understand. How did poker stop the bounceback of hockey? I can see the viewers watching poker because it was on and then enjoying it. But poker seems to be on all the time and I don’t see it affecting football viewership.

    So I can see the lockout helping poker, but I can’t see poker hurting hockey.

    Serpico, I was at a couple of Boston College hockey games. Did BC hockey hold your attention for more that 15 minutes? Did you know they’re only losing 4 seniors this year? Should make next year another very good year.

  • Maybe they’ll even win that game against BU.

  • Serpico

    Willis and Peiser,

    Boston College hockey next year will be a lot of fun. They made a monster run this year and will be returning core guys on each line.

    Schneider (our astonishing netminder) may even be staying.

  • Pedro

    “So I can see the lockout helping poker, but I can’t see poker hurting hockey.”

    My guess is that the biggest effect of poker on hockey isn’t that the viewers don’t want to watch hockey anymore, it’s that the cable networks don’t want to carry it.

    Football shows on network TV a lot — it’s something a lot of people will go watch regardless of where it’s on. It brings in a huge built-in audience, and once it’s on the network, it makes the programming choice worthwhile by bringing in and keeping more casual viewers who just flip to the channel. It’s not much of a risk for a channel to show it, and you have the chance to really rake in a big audience on top.

    Sure, there are hockey fans who are hard-core, but I’d venture that, if a hockey game is on ESPN or even on FOX back before the lockout, a whole lot of your audience is going to be just people who flip to the channel and see that it’s on. Your main concern is not to show something terrible that nobody will watch (like your alternative, the Bobby Bonilla Charity Bowling Tournament or something).

    Cable stations are often really hurting for content (just try to sit through a day of G4 programming sometime — I think I watched six consecutive hours of Cops reruns during a sick day a while back), and they often run on shoestring budgets. The thinking a given sports network might be “I need to fill 24 hours of programming every day, but I don’t want to spend a ton of money on producing or marketing it myself. If I can just buy the hockey game, put it on, and it gets enough viewers, great. Done deal.”

    The NHL is great for that — each team plays 82 games, and the playoffs for a given season last about 17 years. You will never hurt for programming if you have a license to show NHL games — unless there’s some sort of lockout or a season gets cancelled. And, yeah, it isn’t football or baseball, but it isn’t the Yukon Jack Women’s Wrist-Wrestling Championship, either. And it’s better than soccer.

    Suddenly, hockey goes away. Crud, you need to fill ten hours of programming a week. Well, for the cost of a table, some chairs and a few grand in prize money, I can show people playing cards.

    Hmm, that pulls in just as many people as hockey, and it costs me a ton less.

    Oh, the other channels already do it and have brands and everything? Well, the game’s public domain. I’ll just make up a new brand.

    Now you have, three, four, five different branded poker shows that produce for peanuts feeding a near-endless supply of programming to the cable stations. And people watch it.

    The problem now isn’t that the hockey audience suddenly left — if the hockey audience was ever that big, it hasn’t been for a long time outside of certain regions. The problem is that the cable stations that needed hockey don’t need it anymore.

    They incurred a cost when hockey left and they’ve invested their money elsewhere. Switching back to hockey would also incur an immediate cost (and a larger fixed cost in the long term), and there doesn’t seem to be enough of a reward in it to justify taking the chance.

  • NerdZilla

    In my opinion the big thing that hockey lost due to the lockout was the casual fan. I am a Bruins fan and a casual fan of other hockey teams and have also participated in ice and street hockey for years (street is preferred as skating dulls both my blades and my less than considerable hockey “skills”. If I was flipping the channels and went by ESPN I would stop and watch whatever game happened to be playing at the time regardless of which teams were involved. With the post lockout switch to VS, for the longest time I didn’t know which channel VS was – and didn’t care enough to find out – so I no longer watched the NHL. A perfect example of how far hockey has fallen is the 1st game of the Stanley Cup Finals, I was flipping channels at my usual blistering pace when I saw the game was on. I was shocked to find out until then I had no idea when the Cup finals were scehduled to start nevermind had any plans on watching the games. If the Bruins were involved I’d almost be guaranteed to watch the Finals but since it’s……Ottawa……and Anaheim I could care less.

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