Friday, June 1, 2007

There is no 800 lb. gorilla in the room

Tarik has posted again on the sagging ratings for the second game of the Stanley Cup finals. And once again, fans and media alike are declaring that hockey's tenure as a major sport in the US has come to an end.

This idea is patently ridiculous.

I'm not Papa Ted, so I'm not going to break down the rise in the NHL's overall revenue, or how the cash value of franchises in the NHL is increasing. Instead I'm going to focus on the one area people keep complaining about. Media coverage.

Notice that I did not just write "TV coverage." Hockey has not gotten a fair shake from most media outlets for several years. The Caps have been banished to the back pages of the Washington Post and other local outlets for some time now. However, there are signs of progress that need to be held up and recognized.

The Washington Post online, whether out of creativity or necessity, has Tarik blogging on the Caps in particular or hockey in general almost every day during the season or postseason. And while most newspaper writers simply treat blog posts as another column or story, Tarik has been excellent in making the blog an open forum, by posing questions to readers and frequently responding to reader posts. Regardless of the whether it's a traditional or new medium, I think it's safe to say the depth of coverage he has provided is more than the Capitals have seen in this town from a print reporter. Ever. And as more print media catch on to this whole interweb thing, expect hockey coverage to improve at across the board.

In addition, the NHL is far ahead of the curve in releasing highlights and video clips on youtube and on The decision to allow that contend to be accessible without cost may be one of the most forward thinking decisions the NHL has made since the lockout. They could easily have cited copywrite law and constantly pulled clips that feature NHL content. Instead, the league recognized the value of allowing fans thirsting for content to get access to it absolutely free. This may seem like a small thing right now, but keeping ahead of the curve in the digital arena will only help the league long term. I can tell you that being able to pull up Alex Ovechkin highlights at work and show them to co-workers has made Caps fans of more than one of them (and just as important to Papa Ted, sold a few tickets to boot). It's much easier for both casual and hardcore fans to access footage of games, which is incredibly important given that there isn't currently an NHL highlights show on television. There only misstep has been the additional charge for subscribers of NHL Center Ice to access live games online. Asking fans to pay twice for the same content is not in the best interests of expanding the league's base.

Now for the big daddy, the one section of media coverage which any and everyone who is interested in hockey has an opinion on. The television deal with Versus. From what I have read, fans have two problems with Versus. The first complaint is about the "spot on the dial," the channel number given to Versus on cable and satellite providers.

Which is one of the most idiotic things I've ever heard.

I have no idea what channel TNT is on, and I'm willing to bet most NBA fans don't know either, but somehow they get fans to tune in for their games. I couldn't tell you the numbers for 5 channels on my DirecTV lineup. That's why they make those handy-dandy on screen guides, so you can find the channel or program that you're looking for. If you're incapable of doing that, you've got a lot worse problems than finding Versus.

The second complaint, which is of the legitimate variety, is that Versus has a much smaller reach than ESPN. This cannot be discounted. If fans don't have the channel, they can't watch the games. Versus needs to find its way into more homes. They know it. The NHL knows it. They're working on addressing the issue.

What I rarely hear from fans who get Versus is that there isn't enough hockey programming available. The absence of a nightly highlights show aside, Versus has been a breath of fresh air for hockey fans. Their volume of coverage is much higher than ESPN's had been pre-lockout. When was the last time you saw 2 games a night throughout almost the entirety of the playoffs on ESPN2? That's right. NEVER. Versus has also drastically improved the quality of their broadcasts, from their pre and postgame shows to their camera operators. The deal with Versus is still in its infancy, but it shows a great deal of promise. Mark Cuban's HDNet is also an outlet for NHL content, and has been delivering the NHL to HD content starved digital television owners for some time.

The role of HDTV in the future of the NHL has not been discussed to the degree it should be. Upgrading HD content and delivery should be a primary focus of the league as it moves forward. There is an opportunity for the NHL to greatly expand its fan base by actively courting the growing number of HDTV owners who are absolutely STARVED for content. If the league plays its cards well by expanding the number of games broadcast in HD AND searching for alternative methods of distribution such as making High Def highlights available on video game networks such as XBox Live and the Playstation network, streaming to Tivo Series 3 recorders, etc will expose younger users with expendable income (isn't a parent's money always expendible) to the league without having to "unplug" from their experience. It's imperative that the NHL further explore these opportunities in order to grow and thrive in the new age of HD media distribution.

So, to summarize: yes, television viewership of the Stanley Cup finals is down this year. However, this is only year 2 of the league's TV contract with Versus, which one would expect would have its ups and downs. As long as the league continues to be forward thinking in their delivery of content, and as long as the league takes advantage of existing technology (Tarik's blog, the number of blogs NOT created by paid traditional media journalists, digital distribution via youtube and the NHL's website) and stays ahead of the curve by taking advantage of advances in technology (getting FREE HD and standard def content to digital marketplaces like XBox live, the Playstation Network, distributing content that can be streamed to TVs via media servers, etc) the TV ratings will improve.

See, that 800 lb gorilla's starting to look a lot smaller already.

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