Monday, March 1, 2010

The NHL's Momentum: Can They Keep it Going?

Posted By on Mon, Mar 1, 2010 at 12:47 PM

click to enlarge nhl_logo.gif
Yesterday we saw what has to go down as one of the single greatest sporting contests in recent history. Today, the NHL starts back up. 

The question, of course, is whether the NHL, after receiving the ultimate advertisement, can find some way to carry that momentum forward. Given their recent (and not so recent, come to think of it), history, you have to be a bit skeptical. 

Honestly, I'm pretty sure you have to go all the way back to the 1980 Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid to find the last time hockey was in the front of people's minds to the extent it is right now. People who have absolutely no interest in hockey watched the U.S. and Canada duke it out in an all-time classic. Hell, there are plenty of people I know who don't even like sports who watched that game yesterday. It was one of those events which transcended the usual audience demographics; better yet, it lived up to and exceeded the billing once the audience had tuned in. 

The game yesterday was literally perfect for hockey. You had the league's biggest star, Sidney Crosby, winning the game in sudden-death overtime, a last-second goal from the underdogs to send it into overtime in the first place, and brilliant play from an up-and-coming star in the league in Ryan Miller. You couldn't design a better advert for the league if you drew it up yourself. 

The numbers aren't final yet, but the preliminary ratings information paints a pretty remarkable picture. The latest reports give the gold medal game yesterday a 17.6 rating in U.S. homes, meaning that better than 20 million households were tuned in. Plenty of those households were single viewers, I'm sure, but I know plenty of people who had get-togethers for the game. I would be willing to bet the actual number of people with eyeballs on the game yesterday is probably closer to 30 million. (And yes, that is a completely unscientific conclusion pulled from the very depths of my ass.) 

Now, will this wave of momentum actually benefit the NHL, or will they find some way to screw this up like they have just about everything else? You would think having that many people witness your sport at its very best could only be a good thing, but somehow I fear the NHL won't see much in the way of positives. 

What needs to happen, though, is the NHL needs to turn this huge ratings success into a new deal with ESPN. When hockey was on ESPN, the sport was consistently in the national consciousness. Now, on NBC and Versus, hockey is languishing in obscurity. They need to get back into the heads of serious sports fans, and the best way to do that is to get back on to the sports channel. 

I do know Versus is doing all it can to try and capitalise on this sudden good press, broadcasting a ton of games in the immediate future. That's a good start, but I just don't know if it will be enough. The problem isn't a lack of hockey on television, it's a lack of hockey on television people actually watch. 

There's labour unrest in the NFL, and on the horizon in the NBA. If hockey can keep its own business from blowing up the way it did last time their CBA came due, they could benefit from the other sports' inability to handle their issues. The NBA in particular is already losing ground in the ratings, largely due to an image problem, and plenty of people who know far more about labour relations than I think the league is headed for a very ugly battle this time. 

Only time will tell whether the NHL can parlay this moment in the sun into a more permanent place back in the American sporting landscape. For now, though, people are paying attention in a big way. Let's see if they'll keep watching. 

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