Friday, February 26, 2010

Would U.S. Olympic hockey success affect the NHL ratings?; More ‘comments’ talk

The other day one of the posters on the blog expressed surprise—and I guess a little bit of delight—that I still spend time in the car flipping around on the AM radio to find different stations and different games.

It’s true. I know I should have satellite radio but I should also probably have a blackberry and I don’t have one of those either. I can text if I have absolutely need to but I’m more likely to just dial the phone because it’s a lot easier.

The radio has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid and the Mets or Yankees played late at night on the west coast, I’d take my transistor, put it under my pillow and listen to the game until I fell asleep. There was only one FM radio in my parent’s apartment and, as I mentioned yesterday, I’d use it frequently to listen to college basketball games—especially when my parents were out at night and I could sit on the bed with pretzel sticks and a coke while I listened. That was heaven—until my dad found the crumbs.

My car radio is always set—even during the offseason—on stations that I know carry baseball teams. At night, more often than not, I can pick up the Mets and Yankees; the Red Sox; the Phillies; the Indians; the White Sox and, on a clear night, the Cubs and Cardinals. I used to be able to pick up the Orioles and Tigers but they moved away from the clear AM channels they were on in recent years.

Even though I listen to hockey on the radio—bringing back boyhood memories of Marv Albert doing Ranger games—it isn’t the same as baseball. Even college basketball isn’t the same as listening to a baseball game. Life in the car just wouldn’t be the same if I could pick up every single baseball game for a price. I have the baseball package on TV; love the baseball package, especially because it saves me from having to watch the Nationals and Orioles every night (one can only take hearing Rob Dibble call the Nats, “we, us and our guys,” while complaining about every ball and strike call for so long) but there will always be a part of me that misses my boyhood when the NBC game of the week on Saturday was a big deal because it gave you a chance to see teams from other cities play.

All of this is a lead up to talking about hockey. The other day—evening actually—I was in the car and picked up WFAN coming out of New York which has as strong a 50,000 watt signal as any station in the country. I have, at times, picked it up loud and clear in Florida.

Mike Francesa was on. I’ve said before that there is a lot I don’t like about Francesa. He’s arrogant beyond belief, frequently rude to his callers, can’t interview anyone without interrupting and screams at anyone who has the nerve to disagree with him on any subject.

That said, he’s good radio a lot of the time. Because of WFAN’s power, he gets good guests, aided by the fact that the station pays so many coaches and athletes to make regular appearances. He’s also bright, though not nearly as bright as he thinks he is.

The subject was Olympic hockey. A caller brought up the fact that the U.S.-Canada game Sunday night had gotten huge cable ratings and that if the U.S. makes the gold medal game, especially if it plays Canada (he mentioned Russia too at the time) the ratings should go through the roof. My guess is NBC will find a way to show a figure skating exhibition between periods, but so be it.

The caller wondered if the NHL would get a boost from the success the U.S. was having and because the hockey was drawing viewers it doesn’t normally draw. Francesa immediately cut him off (surprise) and said the success of the hockey wouldn’t help the NHL’s ratings on NBC one bit and that Olympic hockey, including 1980, had never helped ratings.

In fact he’s wrong about that. Interest in hockey soared after Lake Placid. Youth hockey grew tremendously, attendance went up in non-original six cities where it had been lagging and the NHL actually over-expanded because it was so encouraged by what it was seeing. There was also a spike after the U.S. played well in the 1994 Olympics, so much so that Sports Illustrated ran a cover story labeling hockey as the next ‘it,’ sport. Then the owners locked the players out at the start of the next season and hockey ceased to be ‘it,’ pretty much before it got started.

It is hard to say how the American success in Vancouver will manifest itself going forward. Hockey is always going to be a tough TV sport. Even if you’ve watched the game all your life, it can be difficult to keep track of the puck, especially in the scrums around the net. Someone takes a shot from the point, the puck ends up in a gaggle of bodies and you aren’t sure if the goalie has it, it’s in the net or it’s gone wide or high. Often it takes replay to see what actually happened on a goal.

What’s more, the NHL’s national package on weeknights is on Versus, which still isn’t in enough homes to make much of a ratings dent. Still, I’ll bet there will be progress, particularly with NBC games on the weekends. The NHL has two superstars: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. For some reason, when their teams, the Capitals and Penguins, met in the conference semifinals last year, NBC made no attempt to get their games on the network. I’m betting that doesn’t happen this year if they meet again. You can also be sure the Buffalo Sabres will see a lot of air time, especially if Ryan Miller proves to be the key guy (as he surely will be) if the U.S. wins any medal, but especially if it’s the gold.

Most people will tell you this: If you go to a hockey game, especially a playoff game, you’re hooked. Hockey in person is as good as it gets and I’m not sure there’s anything more dramatic in sports than a playoff game that goes to overtime—especially a seventh game. The tension is amazing.

But the game is always going to be something of a niche sport on TV. That doesn’t mean it can’t grow. In fact, hockey ratings have improved on NBC since the new rules that were put in place after the lockout and since the arrival (at the same time) of Ovechkin and Crosby. The now-annual outdoor game on New Year’s Day has also brought in new viewers. Even ESPN, which basically sent the NHL packing several years ago, is now talking about wanting to bring it back to the network.

The Olympics will help hockey and the sport will become more popular. It isn’t going to become baseball, football or basketball—no one is claiming that. But to brush it off as some know-it-alls will do, is just silly. And if you DON’T take a look at the game—even with its TV weaknesses—then you’re missing out.


Some of you may have noticed that a post from yesterday was removed by the guys who run the site for me. The removal had nothing to do with it being critical of me—that’s fine as everyone who reads the blog and posts on it or e-mails knows, I have no problem with people disagreeing or critiquing or correcting my mistakes; in fact I enjoy almost all of it. Profanity though, whether directed at me or anyone else, is off-limits here. Because I write books for kids, I know a fair number of kids read the blog. So, we’re going to keep this, as Ben Bradlee might say, a family blog. We've only had to remove posts a couple of times in eight months which speaks to the quality, I think, of those who take the time to post.

As for the non-profane specifics of that post (and I’m pretty sure I know who the poster was) the claim was made that when I said it was, “a matter of record,” that Georgetown was responsible for there being only one scheduled game with Maryland in more than 30 years (there have been a couple of pre-season and postseason tournament games) I was wrong. He said there had been no game because Gary Williams insisted Georgetown return the 1993 game played at Capital Centre to College Park.

In fact, that’s not true. Here’s how I know: I’ve talked to Gary about it in my role as the scheduler for the BB+T Classic. (I’m on the board of the children’s charities foundation that runs the tournament). As long as Verizon Center was set up the way it is set up for the tournament—tickets divided among the teams—he was okay with playing Georgetown. That’s a FACT my angry Georgetown-loving friend. What’s also a FACT is that it was John Thompson (the elder’s) decision to divide the tickets up for the Cap Centre game so that his pal Russ Potts would run the game and the ticket and corporate sales. If you have an issue with that decision, ask Big John about it.

I’ll say it one more time: Georgetown’s absence from an event that has raised more than $8 million for kids at risk in the DC area in 15 years is something that should make anyone associated with Georgetown ANGRY because it’s embarrassing to the school. And if you want to take cheap, profane shots at me for saying that, so be it. I’m quite comfortable with what I’ve said and what I’ve done through the years.


Anonymous said...

Affect, John.

Anonymous said...

Are you serious with this? Beyond the whining about your hugely successful charity tournament, and b/c Georgetown does not want to participate in YOUR charity it should be ashamed, let's review:

1994 had a little team called the Rangers breaking a short streak without a Cup that had a lot more to do with hockey interest (and prompting the SI article) than the EIGHTH-place 1994 US olympic team (which went 1-1-3 in group play before losing 6-1 to the Finns in the quarters, where on earth did you get this notion they were good?) did. As a Rangers-turned-Islanders fan (as if THAT is not offensive enough) you probably were aware of 1940 and 1994, as either one of the people sympathetic to the "NINETEEN-FORTY" chants on the Island or one of the people stung by them. (Or, alternately, one of the people aware of sports in 1994. Like, at all.).

Versus is in 64 million homes (that's only due to the DirecTV-Comcast posturing which will get resolved, it was closer to 80 before this year), ESPN is in 99 and ESPN2 is 98. That's a big difference, but it's not exactly finding CBS College Sports on your dial.

Also, you *could* pick up the entire baseball package if you wanted to, it's readily available to anyone for the past 5-10 years on XM.

Finally, game 1 was on NBC of Caps-Pens last year, they delayed the start of the Derby coverage for it. Not great, but a huge step from the year before when people lost the end of Buffalo-Ottawa in 2007.

Talk about not being as smart as one thinks one is.

Tim said...

Tim - don't know all the Rangers-Islanders mess you are discussing, but numbers aside, Versus is quite certainly a niche channel. And while its great they picked up hockey so it could be on somewhere, its so far off the radar for a channel rotation for casual sports fans, and its so far of the marketing radar for mainstream sports, that its much like the Big10 network in that you forget its on, and when its on.

Their channel placement for me is by the Oxygen Channel (is that still its name?) and C-SPAN, not an area I go to much. I don't think any honest folks in the NHL would disagree that they'd rather be elsewhere, that they think it would help their ratings more and get into the consciousness of the tv sports watcher.

Anonymous said...

yes following the puck on TV -- even on high def is hard. so why not bring back the fox highlighted puck? I loved the highlighted puck -- just not the flaming trail if the puck exceeded a certain speed on a shot.

WES said...

Did Anonymous 2 really say that the Rangers winning the Stanley Cup drove interest in the sport in 1994 more than the Olympics did? Was that in Flatbush or Far Rockaway? Does Anonymous 2 think that more people -- in places that can't be seen from the Empire State Building observation deck -- watched the Stanley Cup on ESPN that year than the Olympics on CBS?

Anonymous 2 might want to spend a little more time beyond the boroughs.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous #2,

Love how jaded you are. Don't get too worked up looking to disagree with everything.

I don't know John, but I don't think John is whining about his charity... I think he's trying to make it the best basketball tourney he can... and it's in the DC area and having Georgetown would make it better.

And yes because Georgetown does not want to participate in his charity it should be ashamed... not because it's his charity... but because it helps at risk kids in Georgetowns backyard.

And here I'll agree with you... the 94 Stanley Cup did have a lot to do with Hockey popularity... But I don't think even that series would have helped if it was on Versus as opposed to ESPN.

I'm a casual hockey fan, I grew up in FL, what do I know from hockey. But as a casual fan I go to ESPN constantly for my sportsnews... Does Versus have a sportscenter type show? Actually I just checked my Versus linup for today on tivo... looks like fishing shows and paid programming all day... Not likely that I'll be watching 'Hunt for Big Fish' or 'City Limits Fishing' today to see them advertise whatever hockey game they've got coming up... even if it was the best hockey game ever to be played.

But from watching sportscenter to get updates on last nights games I know that college basketball this Sat is in Syracuse for Nova v. Cuse and they were just talking about the Mississippi v South Carolina game... a game I would never watch... but I know when it's on.

Love the blog John. Thanks for writing it.


Josh said...

Dang, anonymous 2 has some anger issues. Take the blog for what it’s worth. I guess if it’s worth to you is an outlet to rant and rave about specific mistakes, then go ahead. Hope it makes you feel warm inside.

I think this Olympics’ hockey coverage is alarming. I've been an avid fan of every Winter Olympics dating back to Lillehammer. It may be the Canadian team's pressure to win and 'bail out' the nation's Olympic performance or the close proximity/time zone relation to the USA. In either case, this attention and grandeur can do NOTHING but boost the NHL's product and prowess. The key is how Bettman and Versus use this mo' to carry the second half of the season. Hockey naturally suffers from viewer/fans ADD with such a long season. I personally think they've done an excellent job marketing the newer generation of players over the past few years. The league also seems to have much more parity than any other major sport, which I think is to its advantage.

Baseball on Radio: John's point couldn't be more right on. I like to think I'm not the only person who flips from AM station to AM station hoping to find any sporting event to entertain me while driving. A couple years ago, I was absolutely ecstatic to find Marty Brenneman calling Reds games on 700 WLW. I'm in NC and to find that signal late at night is treasure. It lets you gain more appreciation for the 'ole' radio broadcasts of our youth.


As a kid in Connecticut, we had Bob Steele in the am, and Whalers and Red Sox in the pm.

There was no reason to ever change the dial from 1080 WTIC am...

Jim said...

Let's see.

"He's arrogant beyond belief, frequently rude to his callers, can't interview anyone without interrupting and screams at anyone who has the nerve to disagree with him on any subject."

Is this about Francesa, or, rather, an apt description of a former sportswriter turned radio personality who John always seems to defend?

Thomas said...

Jim - As John said, Fancesa is all that (as Jim said, Kornheiser is as well, but not sure about the caller aspect) but it often makes for good radio!

Francesa is one of those guys that drives me insane, but I do often listen to him. I think most radio, and tv guys for that matter, have to be so opinionated that they can't get away without having any downside.

John from Indiana said...

Couple of thoughts on the air waves... While I am obviously from the Hoosier State, my early childhood was spent in Missouri, where many of my relatives still live. Once a Cardinal fan, always a Cardinal fan. As a youngster, I have fond memories of playing Hide and Go Seek, and Kick the Can, throughout our neighborhood, to the soundtrack of Harry and Jack doing the Cardinal's games. You see, in those days when only rich people had air conditioning, at evening time people would all sit in the backyard with an ice tea or beer, hoping to escape some of the sweltering heat and hummidity, and listen to the Cardinals. You could sneak from one yard to the next and never miss a beat of the ballgame on KMOX. Years later, that KMOX signal was strong enough in the evening that I could back my parent's car out of the garage in Indiana and still listen to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. By that time, Harry had moved his traveling circus east to Chicago. I have still not forgiven my team for leaving KMOX for the FM/Satellite payoff that drilled the common fan in the outlying areas that made the pre 1950 Cardinals "America's team," for anyone West of Chicago and South of Cincinnati.

As for Hockey, I have often thought that the pace of Hockey and Soccer make them especially tough for radio, and to a degree TV. As the action rarely pauses, thoughtful discourse and analysis are rarely engaged in. Baseball has the languid pace of summer, football offers a break between each play, and basketball has breaks for timeouts and free throws. All allow for a conversational tone that is lacking for hockey and soccer. Accordingly, I can see why they are a tough sell over the airwaves.

Not to mention both are communist plots designed to make their respective fans less American!!

Dana King said...

Josh nailed it; these Olympics have provided a lot of compelling hockey. Now it's up to Bettman and the league not to mess it up like they did in 1994. (I remember SI saying hockey was the next big thing right before the league went dark.)

The other thing that should increase hockey interest is hi-definition TV. I have the NHL Center Ice package for Penguins' games, but I'll also flip it on to see what's up if the Pens have the night off. If so, I'll always check the HD channel first. (Can't wait for them to make more HD games available.)

I'm only a casual college basketball fan, but it's impossible to live in the DC area and not know how popular the game is. I can't imagine why DC doesn't have a basketball equivalent to Boston's Beanpot tournament for hockey: Maryland, Georgetown, GWU, and either George Mason or American getting together at the Verizon Center every year for local bragging rights. They'd pack the joint every night and could raise a ton of money for a charity. Be a great way to expand the BB&T format into two days.

But, of course, getting the teams to go for it is the problem.

Anonymous said...

The NHL might get a small bump in interest and TV ratings from the Olympics if the USA wins or plays for gold. But that will be temporary and won't lead to a permanent increase in popularity.

Not only does hockey not play well on TV, but the NHL has a bigger problem. And that is fighting and some of the general brutality. The average American sports fan does not want to see the fights. I know the fighting is beloved by "traditional" hockey fans but it really turns off most people.

And the Steve Moore/Todd Bertuzzi incident set hockey back for decades. Most normal people look at that incident and see a thug ending the career of another player. And then the league and its players defend the thug and ostracize the victim. Absolutely shameful. But that is just the NHL being the NHL.

And it's only a matter of time until another ugly incident occurs in the NHL. Unfortunately this is the only time the NHL gets national attention.

The NHL will always be a niche sport just like pretty much every other sport except football.

Rich, Denver

JDM said...

I think John might have meant that the 1992 Olympics team made youth interested in hockey again, which is did, with Clark Donatelli leading us to 4th Place.

MB said...

It’s always amazes me that Georgetown and Maryland never play one another in the regular season. I mean, this could be every bit as big as Duke-Carolina, Kentucky-Louisville, or any other rivalry in college football. (I was never a huge Bobby Bowden fan, but I give him props for never backing down in playing both Miami (before they joined the ACC) and Florida in the regular season, every year.)

I have nothing against Georgetown as an academic institution, but the arrogance that its basketball program continuously demonstrates is ridiculous. (It’s been 25 years since the Hoyas won their lone national championship.) As John mentions, the Thompsons (pere and fils) always have some type of excuse as to why they just can’t play Maryland (or any of the other local schools). As one of my old bosses used to say, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

The reality is that there are four big time D1 basketball schools in the DC metro area – Georgetown, George Mason, George Washington, and Maryland -- from four different conferences, three of which have gone to the final four within the last 10 years. John Feinstein should be out of a job as the BB&T scheduler, as the tournament should be a no-brainer – an annual clash of DC basketball titans for area bragging rights.

You can either have a one-day double-header, a two-day tournament (winners on day 1 play on day 2), or, best of all, a 3-day round robin tournament, whereby each school plays the other three schools for all of the marbles (there could be no arguing about who would be #1 for that particular year). Play it at the Verizon center, split the tickets equally, and all revenue goes to charity.

You don’t think the World Wide Leader would eat this up (and take credit for it in the process)? I can already hear Dickie V getting revved up, saying this is the greatest regular season basketball tournament in the history of basketball!!!

Would the four schools go for it? I’m sure Jim Larranaga would sign up in a heart-beat. So would Karl Hobbs, as he wouldn't have any choice but to go along, although he better get his act together at GW if he wants to be competitive in this group. I’m thinking Gary Williams would also give the green light, since he’s ultra competitive, and would never back down from a challenge. His biggest problem would be to convince Debbie Yow to go along.

Which brings it back to Georgetown, and JT III and JT jr (and don’t think for a minute that the old man doesn’t still exercise his influence over Hoya basketball). I can almost hear the excuses about why they need to duck the local competition because the Big East regular season is so much tougher than any other basketball conference, etc. etc.

Once again, Georgetown will talk the talk about their bad-ass basketball program, but they’ll never actually walk the walk.

Losers, move on!

Chris Wilson said...

For those with HD Radios and interested in Baltimore, NY, and/or Philly sports talk, you can find the radio feeds for 105.7 The Fan (Bmore), WFAN (NY), and WIP (Philly) on 106.7-2, 106.7-3, and 106.7-4, respectively.

I, too, search for out-of-state AM stations looking for baseball games. I recall a few years ago one summer driving from DC to southeastern NC at night and getting WFAN nearly the entire way down. Cool treat.