Over the weekend, NASCAR had its season championship come down to the wire and decided on the final race of the season. For a sport that exploded and subsequently faded, it was exactly the kind of event they needed to help gain viewers. It was an exciting finish—so they should have been happy. But no matter what happened Sunday, it doesn’t change the fact that NASCAR is struggling to maintain any of the momentum it had built up in the middle of the last decade.
Five years ago, NASCAR was the darling of the sports world. They were gaining viewers all over the country. Northern viewers were watching it more than ever. Women were watching it more than ever. And the young males who networks fall all over themselves for—they were watching it in record numbers, as well. But something’s happened and they’ve faded. Their spot as the “fourth” major sport looks less and less likely with every 200 MPH lap of their cars.
So what in the world does this have to do with hockey? That void in “The Big Four” American sports scene? Well, that was originally the NHL’s spot in the 1970s and 1980s. With race cars and Texas Hold‘em losing ground in the ratings (and in the psyche of American culture), there’s an opportunity for hockey to jump into a higher importance within the American sports conversation. But while there’s an opening in front of the sport, there are decisions to be made which will make or break the opportunity.
The best part about this situation for the NHL is that it comes at the right time. The league has done a fantastic job of getting out in front of the curve when it comes to a multi-layered, multi-functional website and embracing social media. They’ve acknowledged they have viewers around the world and have both mobile platforms and GameCenter to allow international viewers to scratch their NHL itch. When it comes to nontraditional ways of getting their product out to the masses, they’ve done what it takes.
But those moves have only given the league this opportunity to grow. By no means does that guarantee that it will succeed.
Hockey fans will tell you it’s the best sport in the league. But for one reason or another, it’s never really grabbed a hold of the sports watching public the way baseball held fans for decades or the way football currently holds them. There are two huge decisions coming in the next 20 months that will decide the fate of the NHL for the foreseeable future. Will it take the next step and return as one of the major sports in North America? Or will it shoot itself in the foot (yet again) and watch billiards or the MLS pass it in popularity?
The current television deal with NBC/Versus ends at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season. Negotiated with the dark cloud of the lockout still tainting the league, the deal almost looks like a favor more than a real television contract in the 21st century. NBC paid exactly ZERO dollars for the rights to televise the regular season and post-season games. And now there’s the Winter Classic. Instead of paying for the rights to broadcast NHL games, NBC negotiated a revenue sharing contract in which the advertising fees would be split between the NHL and NBC. Considering the alternative was NO network broadcast coverage, it was the only deal on the table.
Versus dropped $130 million on a 2-year deal for to show 54 regular season games, the all-star game (and rest of the festivities), and post-season coverage. On the plus-side, the league received an infusion of cash which it desperately needed. On the negative, they were signing up with a network that many people had never even heard of. To give a point of reference, the NBA earned a total of $930 million for 52 regular season games (and post season coverage) from ABC/ESPN and TNT after the 2007-08 season. That was a season when NBA ratings were at a record low.
This round, the NHL will have a decision to make. Do they want to continue to stay with the NBC/Versus partnership they’ve ridden for the last five years? Or do they want to get back on the Worldwide Leader and sell their rights to ABC/ESPN? There’s a fundamental question between the two choices that is much cloudier than it was when Versus started televising games after the lockout.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the NHL grab onto any offer ESPN offers and sign it in blood. The cross-promotional advantages ESPN offers as well as the sets of eyeballs that are glued to the “sports leader” every day have to be worth something to a league trying to attract the casual sports fan. But a deal with ESPN would not be all sunshine and rainbows. Just as it was before, the league would have to hope the network broadcast the majority of their games and would be constantly fighting for the spotlight with the NBA. Would it be better for the league to be on ESPN2 all the time? Because unfortunately, the NFL and NBA are driving ESPN’s programming.
On the flip side, the NHL could continue with Versus. Seemingly unthinkable when they signed the deal, staying with Versus might be best for the hardcore fans who want to see their hockey games without filler. On Versus, the intermission reports are not about college football or college basketball, they’re about the NHL. When the game is over, the transmission isn’t immediately switched over to SportsCenter—the network continues to shine the spotlight on hockey with post-game news and analysis.
They’ll have to decide if they want to be on a smaller network that will give them 100% of the spotlight or a larger network that will give them 25% of the spotlight (if they’re lucky). What it comes down to is this—if the NHL wants to bring in the fickle casual fan that will leave just as quickly as they’ll show up, then ESPN is a no-brainer. But if they want a network that will appease the hardcore fan who wants their hockey every night of the week (with analysis) during the playoffs with almost every game possible being part of a national broadcast, then Versus is the spot to stay. Then again, isn’t that what NHL Network is for?
Either way, who are we kidding? The NHL will sign with whichever network is offering more money. Who cares about what’s best for the long-term success of the game?
The second issue for the NHL to step into the American sports mainstream is avoiding yet another lockout. Unlike the television conundrum, this isn’t an either/or type of decision. It’s simple. The players and league need to make it work and they can’t miss one single game in the process. At the end of the day, fans looking to get into the sport aren’t going to care if the players got another raw deal or if the owners caved at the last minute. They need to play. Period.
Think back to the last time the NHL had this much momentum. In the mid-1990’s, the NHL looked like it was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream. Popularity was at an all-time high. Following the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup Finals run led by Wayne Gretzky and the Mark Messier-led Rangers Cup victory, the league was in the position to cash in with both the TV networks and fans alike. But in what has become a trend, the NHL shot itself in the foot at the worst possible time.
Instead of building on Cup Finals appearances by Los Angeles and New York, the owners locked the players out before the 1994 season—costing the NHL, its players, and its fans 468 regular season games. It wasn’t just the games that were lost though—the momentum created from the previous two seasons came to a screeching halt.
It took years for the NHL to get back on its feet—yet only a decade later the owners and players were again at odds. This time, they went the distance and became the first (and only) major sports league to cancel an entire season. But here’s the thing—do you remember what they were fighting about? Do you remember the players being hell-bent against a salary cap that was linked to revenues? Do you remember that the players didn’t trust the owners’ claims that they were losing money?
If you remember, you’re not the fan the NHL is worried about. You were probably here before the lockout and you were one of the first to come back.
We’re talking about the fringe sports fan that has A.D.D. like my 2-year-old nephew after a cookie dough ice cream binge. They’ll watch whatever is on in front of them—and if it’s gone for more than 6 months, then it’s gone period. Out of sight, out of mind.
It’s taken about five years for those fringe fans rediscover hockey and to be reminded how much they liked the sport. All of the great numbers the NHL has been so quick to point out during the last two playoff runs? Allow me to let you in on a little secret: Those numbers are about as stable as 90-pound woman after a night of Jager-bombs. The minute the NHL takes them for granted will be the minute they lose the fans they’ve worked so hard to bring back.
The NHL has tempted fate twice with labor disputes. In the 90’s, they killed momentum that they’d never had, and in 2004 they almost killed the league. If they do it again—especially with the opening in the sports landscape to take a step forward—they could kill the momentum they’ve built, any chance of taking the leap into the mainstream, and the fans that came back may never come back again.
Forget rule changes to increase scoring or more outdoor games—it’s a television deal and avoiding a lockout that are the keys to the NHL taking the next step as a sports league. They have an opportunity to grow the sport that, realistically, they haven’t had for a couple of decades. They’re only a few good decisions away from watching the NHL climb to heights they never could have imagined.
Then again, they’re only a couple of bad decisions away from blowing the biggest opening they’ve ever had.