Friday, June 6, 2008


On Wednesday, Sports Media Watch posed a very intriguing question: which league had the more impressive rise in ratings between the NBA and the NHL? It’s a question that’s much, much harder to answer if you’ve paid attention to both postseasons than in the initial glance.

Outside of the media darling that is the NFL, every sport has a significantly longer regular season with a greater emphasis placed on game-by-game attendance than what the former would announce (though having 25-year wait lists is an achievement in itself for the gridiron league). When ticket sales slump or are non-existent in other sports, teams will do everything possible to fill them with a barrage of advertisements, sponsorships and giveaway promotions to get the typical television viewer off the couch and into the seats.

Every league has a local blackout policy that essentially cancels TV viewing in order to further along any sales for underperforming teams. Yet, the television product is still a vastly cheaper option on a regular basis: a comfortable couch or bed, a six-pack that costs the equivalent of two drinks at the game (or less) and no transportation needed.

So, while seemingly nothing on television sets Nielsen records anymore, what has helped both leagues capture the attention of a fragmented audience?

There are several elements that give the NBA the advantage here. First off, no league has tinkered with its product as often as the NBA over the past decade. Though the NHL made a drastic overhaul since returning from its 2005 lockout, the folks at Olympic Tower (read: Commissioner David Stern) have made tweaks big and small since the mid-nineties. As discussed last year in Antagonist, the offense was augmented and the defense was stripped down some in order to not only bring about new fans, but to recapture much of the audience that only watched the NBA to see Michael Jordan.

In the long run, it has paid off as the rules only helped enhance already-talented offensive players such Gilbert Arenas, Chris Paul and the league’s biggest superstars in Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Despite the two-way dominance (mostly defensive) from the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs, scoring seems to be the honey that attracts the bees.

As for those very stars, the last few seasons have provided player movement unlike any other time in league history. Whether it’s through free agency, trade or the June Draft, the depth of the talent pool in the Association is something to behold. Many of these moves gave fans across the country a reason to come out to the games, especially as some of those moves translated to playoff appearances and championships.

If not for free agency, Phoenix and Washington would have never signed Nash and Arenas, players who not only helped return their respective teams to the postseason over the past four years, but have reshaped the identity of their franchises (along with help from Amare Stoudamire, Caron Butler and others).

Markets such as New Jersey, Miami, Detroit and Boston were some of the league’s biggest benefactors of trades as Jason Kidd, Shaquille O’Neal, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett were the linchpins of Finals participants and Champions.

Then, of course, there were the 2003 and 2005 Drafts; drafts that gave Cleveland (James), Denver (Carmelo Anthony), Miami (Dwayne Wade), Toronto (Chris Bosh), Utah (Deron Williams), New Orleans (Paul) and other cities franchise cornerstones and postseason contention for years to come.

In other words, New York and Los Angeles don’t have to be at the party for everyone to have a good time.

Finally, for all of the slack that some fans and media have given the A for having the greatest global reach outside of football/soccer, the NBA is still an American product. While basketball was invented by a Canadian, the sport’s growth is a product of the American appetite for competitive timed sports (where baseball’s timelessness gives it a special place in Americana). Much of the reason why some sports fans dismiss and demean other sports such as soccer, hockey and tennis stems from nationalism. That the best players in those sports aren’t American gives the appearance of inferiority, even if that’s far from the truth.

Despite how ignorant it sounds (and really is), for many, it’s an undeniable fact. Sure, we tend to gravitate to something familiar in many aspects of life. Yet in American sports, being from ‘over there’ tends to be the copout some viewers use to not care or blatantly disrespect their efforts.

Despite its heavy Canadian and northern US roots, just six of the 30 franchises (Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver) are Canadian. Of the twenty-four American teams, ten play in cities that did not have a NHL franchise before 1990, including the six oft-maligned southern depots [Nashville, Carolina (Raleigh), Tampa Bay, Florida (Miami), Atlanta and Phoenix]. The Dallas Stars have built a contender in Texas over the last decade, yet the NHL has struggled to gain a foothold in the south, despite the allure of larger American media markets (compared to Canadian).

Many have called for the relocation or contraction of those teams, even if means that most of those talented players may not see NHL ice for years, if ever again. Yet, instead of being contracted, five of those southern teams have made the playoffs in the last ten years, with Florida, Carolina (won title) and Tampa Bay (won title) having hosted the Stanley Cup Finals.

The 2005 lockout, though in many ways was necessary, only exacerbated the league’s problems. However, to rebuild itself for dwindling television audiences, the NHL stirred itself a potent drink; increasing offense with rule changes, making players and coaches more media-accessible and a broadcasting deal that for better or worse, has been the league’s safety net after being dropped by ESPN.

The 2005 lockout, though in many ways was necessary, only exacerbated the league’s problems. However, to rebuild itself for dwindling television audiences, the NHL stirred itself a potent drink; increasing offense with rule changes, making players and coaches more media-accessible and a broadcasting deal that for better or worse, has been the league’s safety net after being dropped by ESPN.

Just as their indoor roommates in the NBA, the NHL has benefited greatly from their drafts. While Sidney Crosby is its biggest name (the LeBron James of the sport), there are many other young stars that have helped the league emerge from the darkness of 2005. Alexander Ovechkin (Washington) and Evgeni Malkin (Crosby’s teammate in Pittsburgh) were drafted months before the actual cancellation of the 2004-05 season, but the Russian stars have made a difference in the fortunes for the Capitals and Penguins. Crosby himself was tabbed by the Pens in the first post-lockout Draft and has since carried the mantle of the NHL. Along with other young stars such as Rick Nash (2002 - Columbus), the Staal brothers (Eric, 2003 – Carolina; Mark, 2005 – NY Rangers and Jordan, 2006 – Pittsburgh), Vincent Lecavalier (1998 – Tampa Bay), Henrik Zetterberg (1999 – Detroit) and many others, it seems as if the game has been crafted to exploit their speed, strength and vision towards the goal. And not to mention the goaltending stars challenging future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur as the best goalie in the league.

Along with the plethora of free agent signings made since the return from the lockout, teams were more poised for the new NHL with a premium placed on younger and faster players on offense. Of course, there are still enforcers and defensive specialists, but in opening up the ice for more puck movement, the game has endeared itself to fans disillusioned from the labor strife and has a growing appeal among those who are being introduced to hockey for the first time.

However, where ugly nationalism actually has helped the NBA in some circles, it continues to harm the NHL and hockey for a vast majority of the States. It has always been a league that has been predominantly Canadian (currently 52%), but there has also been a backlash against the European influence on the league. Even though the percentage has declined a bit (down from about 30% in 2002 to just above 25% this past season), you’d think that they took over the entire league. Just as their basketball counterparts, they have been labeled as soft and dismissed because their names are difficult for some fans and media to pronounce. Yet, when your team is winning, Andrei Kostitsyn can rattle off the tongue with ease.

The principal reason for the rise in ratings points to the US markets that have found steady success in the post-lockout era. This past year was the first season in some time where all of the Original Six teams were competitive at once, with Detroit having won the Cup. San Jose and Anaheim (last year’s champ) have built perennial Cup contenders in California while Philadelphia, Washington and New Jersey help solidify the northeast. Interest has grown steadily over the last three years as casual fans, some old-school purists and die-hard puckheads having embraced the new NHL. On the ice itself, Americans now account for 22% of the league’s talent (up from 14% five years ago). So while Canadians at-large will always love their sport, Americans will remain skeptical about the league’s success until their largest markets continue to host playoff contenders.

When you weigh all of these factors when answering the poll question, you might find that it’s even tougher than when it was first posed. Both have similar reasons for success, though there are stark differences in the audience size and demographics. Both have amazing talented athletes, many who are still in the formative years of what may become great or even Hall of Fame careers. Both have also made major changes to the games themselves in order to garner fan interest. Yet, the answer may still come down to personal preference.

Can you be more impressed by something familiar, even if it’s repackaged or by something you paid little attention to before?

Say What?!?!: The obsession with the nearing Beijing Olympics continues.
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