Sports Opinion & Analysis

Light Beer, Viagra, and Family Guy References

In Media, NHL on November 7, 2012 at 10:56 am

By Chris Carosi

Gary Bettman is the NHL’s first commissioner.

Look! Gary’s Happy!

And, as commissioner and top ranking executive officer of the league, Bettman’s role is (and now I’m quoting the NHL Constitution), “[To protect] the integrity of the game of professional hockey and [preserve] public confidence in the League.”

That’s a funny little sentence. Firstly, as anyone who follows any professional sport closely might know, the NHL has been partially ignored by the media and the general public. This, no doubt, is partly due to its absence during the 2004-2005 season, and its drop off of the mainstream radar (also known as ESPN).

When the game returned the following year, it really did feel like the NHL was starting over, changing the rules to make the game more “marketable” by eliminating two-line passes, limiting the goalie’s ability to play the puck, and trying, oh so hard, to push their game to the ESPN crowd anyway as if it was 1988 and the whole game developed around Gretzky (skate and shoot) with the hopes of 8-7 final scores. The league started its play at the mainstream sports market by building a fan structure on superstars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, whose “rivalry” would ignite interest in the “light beer, Viagra, and Family Guy references” demographic.

“Camera’s on us, dude, look like your hate for me is barely contained as feisty respect.”

What it did do successfully in those two cities (Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.) was catalyze a young college-level (and younger) fan base that was waiting to be discovered. And it warmed the hearts of the old guys with bad skin who’ve been watching hockey at the Corner Tavern every other day over fistfuls of horrible local pilsner, but those guys were always there. Anyway, the idea was to piggyback the rest of the league’s markets off of this hype, get some SportsCenter coverage, and carry on steadily. It kind of worked.

I say “kind of” because the thing about hockey fans is that they seek to destroy, complicate, or disregard hype quickly because they are very much obsessed and the blog presence with hockey is unusually high (that’s another demo the league captured without knowing it—this might have been a result of dissatisfaction with current coverage). In the hockey world, there was (and still is) a ton of hate directed at Crosby and Ovechkin and their respective teams. The rebellion was obvious with people already interested in the game but there were some encouraging long-term results.

The Red Wings, Penguins, Blackhawks, and Bruins won Cups in succession. That’s waaaaaay better for the league’s rebuilding than teams in Carolina, Tampa, and Anaheim winning during the time of the last lockout. Leave it to the NHL to experience shrinkage when teams in new markets win. It’s a shame, really. Hockey towns winning cups means something is going right: real evidence that the heart and soul of the sport is alive and well.

Also (and it’s a big “also”) every single playoff game last year was on national television. That shows two things: 1) NBC had real confidence in its brand. 2) They actually displayed real confidence in their brand. And it’s no secret that the ratings have steadily increased over the years. And the Kings won a Cup (to close the Gretzky circle started so long ago). Look at that. Interesting.

“Hold your questions, Mr. Gretzky has lost his contact lens in the electrical hazard of 80’s microphones.”

It seems to me that the NHL dreams about the audience that could give a shit about its product and it just can’t seem to give itself time to gain its footing. I’m not saying this is Gary Bettman’s fault. Given the time the game has spent these last few years in the basement level of cable sports (the Versus network, now known more homogenously as the NBC Sports Network), the coverage had improved, the camera work not so clueless, the intermission coverage a bit less pointless (except Mike Milbury) but the basic ways that regular Americans can warm back up to the sport are being clamped down again. Even the change of the name to NBC Sports Network felt more resolute and shiny, like a show of trust, bringing the network’s coverage of professional football and professional hockey under one roof. But now that group-hug is losing its grip… again.

If NHL fans are looking for a miracle, it won’t happen. The players put together a sentimental little video package, using the purity of the sport itself to get the populace on their side, but they can’t defend themselves when it was the vast majority of their bosses that voted for the lockout in the first place. The league needs to change and it needs to be long term. It was Mario Lemieux that famously said the NHL was a “Garage League”. This is what he meant. Wait, he’s an owner too. Damn!

“Hi, kids, I’m Sidney Crosby. The tiny Reebok emblem on my cap signifies my broken heart.”

The NHL is a glacial league stuck in a rut in a world quickened by social media (it’s like Internet amphetamine). If it really wants to get that sweet piece of the viewing millions they believe they want like the other three major sports leagues in this country, it will take a lot more than salary arbitration and flirtations with shared revenue to do it. It will take real ingenuity, because for how many steps they took forward these last few years, they’ve now taken more steps back… for the second time in six years… to the brunt of everyone’s jokes… and children are crying… and Canadians, poor Canadians, are seriously depressed. I am depressed.

Basically, if there is an agreement and the players can skate, I think a really good idea for Bettman would be to start the season on the Winter Classic, which is perhaps his trademark brilliant idea—a yearly, repeatable, and unique spectacle that no other sport can never ever replicate that attracts regular folks to the television who don’t particularly enjoy hockey.  That would be a good idea, to make a grand gesture to the public while providing a solid ground for their loyal fanbase to stand on. Good ideas can be in short order in the No Hubris League and I have semi-privately been selling Bettman short since I’ve seen his sharply-defined little punam when I was a youngster. But here’s hoping (and it’s a suspicious hope) that he has something up his sleeve. Eh?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: