Friday, June 10, 2005

The Continuing Decline of the NHL

Duncan Currie has a great article on the Weekly Standard Web site discussing the impact of ESPN's decision to end its broadcast deal with the NHL:

ESPN regained the cable broadcast rights to NHL action in 1992. This time, the network's choice proved felicitous. Hockey's popularity skyrocketed following the New York Rangers' gripping Stanley Cup run in 1994. Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of "the coolest game on earth." But over the past several years, the talent pool has been diluted by near-constant league expansion, scoring has plunged, the games have gotten slow and boring, and TV ratings have sunk. The heady days of the mid 1990s seem a distant memory.

Then, of course, there was the 2003-2004 lockout. The NHL became the first pro sports league in North America to forfeit an entire season due to a labor dispute. ESPN had to fill scads of empty timeslots with substitute programs. And, as Reuters reported last week, the network discovered that programming "it aired in place of NHL games on a month-to-month basis during the canceled season did just as well or better than hockey would have."

Even despite all that, ESPN offered a last-minute compromise. It would buy year-long broadcasting rights from the NHL--but for "well below half of $60 million," according to Shapiro. The league demurred, refusing to budge from its $60-million asking price. Said Bernadette Mansur, the NHL's communications VP, "We're not interested in devaluing the product any further."

True, a lesser deal--one for, say, $15 or $20 million per season--would have meant harsh revenue losses for the league's 30 clubs. But at least it would've been something. As it stands now, with ESPN's apparent exit, NHL teams stand to lose $2 million apiece. How's that for "devaluing the product"?

The NHL on Ice

The NHL was once a league built around passion and tradition. Gary Bettman and the league office have worked tirelessly over the last decade to destroy this legacy and turn the game into a soulless, boring, prepackaged form of corporate entertainment. Their success in this endeavor has done far more to "devalue the product" than any TV negotiation. I am a lifelong hockey fan, yet I could care less if the NHL ever comes back.


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