The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

ROTTEN RATINGS: ENGENDERED BY THE REGULAR SEASON?
power failure flame out
Not surprisingly, these 2004 Stanley Cup Finals games are sucking canal water, ratings-wise. A real shame, as the Lightning-Flames matchup is shaping up to be one of the all-time best.

What can be done? Well, short of my brilliant proposal to plug in New York and Los Angeles teams into every pro sport championship game, regardless of who makes it through the playoffs, the NHL is going to have to continue to try to build a large enough fanbase that will help draw in plenty of casual fans come playoff time. Decoupling television fortunes from ABC, at least partially, will actually help, as I'm of the opinion that Disney/ABC is showing a pattern of mishandling all its televised sports properties. In the case of the NHL, when you're at the bottom, you can only go up.

But here's something to consider: An acknowledged reason for the ratings shortfall is the presence of two smaller-market teams in the Finals; and worse, one of them being Canadian (presumably, if this had been Toronto-Calgary, not a single American soul would be watching). This in itself wouldn't be an issue if hockey overall were more of an event sports; by contrast, the Super Bowl gets huge ratings no matter which podunk towns the two teams represent. But things being as they are, the NHL championship relies on viewership numbers from individual teams' devotees, typically large markets (New York, Chicago, Philly) and/or traditional powerhouse teams that have something of a cross-country following (Detroit, Colorado, St. Louis). This is a double-edged sword, in that once those teams drop out of the postseason, most of their fans tend to drop out as well; it's all very provincial, and doesn't encourage following the league beyond the hometown team or, at best, the division.

So why, then, is the NHL looking to exacerbate this effect by adopting a regular-season schedule that puts even more emphasis on divisional matchups? The way I see it, the new 72-game schedule, with a near-neverending slate of games within divisions and no interconference play, just about ensures that fans will pay less attention to extra-divisional teams come playoff time. Instead of following the NHL, a fan in Boston will follow the Bruins and the NHL Northeast, and once the teams from that division get knocked out of the playoffs, s/he'll stop watching, because the familiarity is gone. It's like the league is eating itself, region by region. Not exactly a recipe for growing the game.

Oh well. Go Bolts.