Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Blame Bettman (Not Canada)

by Bob Herpen

The Phanatic Magazine

If you're looking to find a culprit for the NHL's perennial trouble trying to cement a fan base, you don't have to look too far or listen too closely.

Just follow the trail of boos in most of the league's arenas, and you have your man - Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman - the one who assured us that ESPN/ABC was holding the league over a barrel when negotiating a renewal of their television deal. Bettman - the one who said the old financial system only ensured the teams with the deepest pockets would be the ones competing for the Stanley Cup.

Bettman - the one who kept preaching that the cancellation of one whole season would be for the betterment of the league because of the changes it would force.

Two seasons later, the proof is in the numbers. The same numbers he keeps preaching at every stop on the New NHL Sunshine Tour about goals increasing, overall league attendance rising, and team revenues stabilizing, can't mask the most important numbers of all: ratings.

For Games 1 and 2 of the Cup Finals on the obscure basic-cable channel Versus, they struggled to reach the half-million-viewer mark. For the remaining three games of the series, NBC boasted numbers hovering around a 1.1 rating or 2.3 million viewers, battling for the title of lowest-rated prime-time program in network history.

That means, it's not too long before someone adopts the Dean Vernon voice to intone that the league's championship ratings were somewhere in the Bluto Blutarsky GPA range.

The simple fact is, hockey fans in this country want to see teams with a pedigree of success competing for the Stanley Cup.

Short of that, they'll settle for the creation of new rivalries like the burgeoning blood feud of Buffalo-Ottawa or the California crunch of Anaheim-San Jose. The current financial system which ensures a fairer chance for all 30 teams, means that you might have to wait years before the luck of the draw shakes out to a Detroit-New York or Colorado-Philadelphia series.

At least under the old rules, the teams with buying power butted heads year after year. That way, long-running, bitter and turbulent rivalries developed which drew fans to the game. Under the current product, you're more likely going to see three or four different teams in the conference finals and two different Cup finalists than the year before, which we now know breeds something far more telling than apathy.

Even though that's the way Bettman wants it for the good of the whole league, that's not going to stoke the fires of the initiated, nor will it draw the casual fan to the sport. That's what ends up breeding endless discussions about cosmetic changes to the game to increase scoring and sate the supposed savage masses who demand to be entertained.

Just how clueless is the fan base in Anaheim, one of the Commish's beloved small/non-traditional markets? They didn't even boo Bettman during the trophy ceremony following the conclusion of Game 5 - something which has happened at every Cup awarding since 1994.

If Bettman takes stock in the maxim that even negative reaction means people care, I wonder how he could spin the obvious lack of response.

Since contraction is off the table, the best that traditional fans can hope for is that the teams in the hunt the last few seasons go deep into the postseason over the next couple seasons and build some ratings-grabbing animosity.

Since the league will continue to exist with no less than 30 teams, the best new fans can hope for in new cities is an April-June romance with their club some future season which might replace Spring cleaning or the local strawberry festival.

And when the county fair draws more people and gets better ratings than the Stanley Cup? Point the finger at the Sultan of Spin himself.


Anonymous said...

More Glauser!

Anonymous said...

Bettman's gotta go!

cello said...

i blame florida. that state ruins everything that's good. if tampa bay hadn't won that cup, we wouldn't be in this world of trouble right now.

letting one southern team in was a crack in the foundation of a collapsing house. since then, two more southern teams, carolina and anaheim, have their names to the cup. making it five years since a respectable team has won (sorry devils.)

meanwhile, three solid canadian teams went home empty handed.