Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

State of the NHL

The Thrashers are on break at the moment so I thought I would direct my attention to the State on the NHL after watching last night's State of the Union address.

There has been a recent spate of articles regarding the shrinking place of the NHL in the American sports world. I myself have long been skeptical of the "sky is falling" crowd who never seem to tire of proclaiming the doom of hockey. Nor am I someone who is obsessed with making the NHL equal in popularity with the other big pro sports leagues: MLB, NFL, NBA. I'm perfectly fine with hockey as a niche sport. If hockey became as popular as those other sports it would mean more demand for tickets, which would lead to higher prices and therefore I would see fewer NHL games live.

I've always said that I can live with hockey being a second tier sport as long 1) my local team has enough support to flourish 2) there is sufficient demand so that all the games are televised. That latter point has been a source of annoyance lately as the Thrashers have not had a local carrier for all their games this season, but my CenterIce package has filled the void so far.

Generally speaking I think the game on the ice is going very well. I like the crackdown on obstruction. It is great to see speed and skill come back to the fore. No longer do we see our talented hockey stars wrestled to the ice like some cattle at a small town rodeo. Like everyone I too am frustrated with the inconsistency of officiating from time to time (especially if referee Mick McGeough is calling the game).

I would still like to see more scoring and I favor further reductions on the size of the goalies’ catching glove and expanding the nets by a couple of inches on either side. I would also like to see the NHL adopt the point system used during the World Juniors (3 points regular win, 2 points OT/SO win, 1 point OT/SO loss) and eliminate the problem of some game being worth 3 points and others just 2. I like the shootout, I just think a shootout win shouldn't count the same as a regulation win.

But the fact that NHL local television ratings are down across the board is a cause for concern. If local ratings continue to drop it will make airing local NHL games less attractive and may reduce further the number of games which are televised. If that happens it is a major cause for concern for this particular fan.

The fact that local TV ratings seem to be declining in most markets suggests that it isn't being caused by problems with one particular team or in one particular market. Instead the systemic nature of this problem indicates a larger problem. Personally, I don't think the game itself is the problem. Most fans I talk to like the new rules. Some point to the decline of fighting, but fighting has been in a steep decline for many years now and it is hard to see that as an explanation.

My best guess is that people are watching less hockey because the NHL simply is receiving less exposure in the sports media. The league did not put out a product for an entire year and when it returned there was an upsurge in articles about the league and what would happen. In the first lockout season it appeared that the NHL had suffered little long term damage from the lost season. Fans game out in strong numbers and all appeared to be fine.

This years attendance is roughly equal to the previous season but there appear to be fewer eyeballs watching hockey games on television. This suggests to me that the core NHL fans who buy single game and season tickets have not changed their habits that much but more casual fans have. And I think that this shift in the habits of the casual fans is being caused by the decreased exposure the NHL is receiving in the sports media.

Here in Atlanta the team is in 1st place in their division and they have the highest winning percentage of the four pro sports franchises in town, yet the local sports talk radio will devote hours to a sagging Hawks basketball team. The Thrashers only get mentioned in the half hour news update or in passing as an example of a team that has turned things around "look at what the Thrashers have done, why can't the Hawks be like that?"

I realize that part of the problem locally is that the Thrashers have never made the playoffs and I hope that the city will sit up and pay more attention to this team come spring. Certainly the local NHL fans have been turning out in strong numbers after the team got off to a great start this fall.

But I really feel that the entire league is feeling the effects of 1) less coverage in the print press; 2) less coverage on ESPN SportsCenter; 3) reduced exposure of OLN/VS broadcast outlet. As much as I didn't like the way ESPN treated NHL hockey I think that the shift to OLN/VS has become an unmitigated disaster for the league. The production values are terrible on the new network. Many people simply don't get the channel. It is a crime that there is no nightly NHL highlights show available in the USA.

The decision to air games on Monday and Tuesday nights was not wise. Sports fans settle in to watch sports on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If you are a casual sports fan there is no national NHL game being shown on television during that three day period. If you happen to watch SportsCenter during that three day period you will see very few NHL highlights. For all intends and purposes the NHL might as well be invisible during the weekend to many casual sports fans. I believe that this, more than anything else, is the cause for declining ratings. People who are not die-hard hockey fans need to have their interest peaked or need a reminder that there is a big game this weekend and they are not receiving those messages as much as in the past.

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