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Losing the game: After 14 years of Gary Bettman, the NHL is still hitting a wall in the U.S.
Mark Spector in Dallas, National Post
Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007

It was still a 24-team league 14 seasons ago, when Gary Bettman first became commissioner of the National Hockey League.

It was February, 1993, and expansion teams in Anaheim and Florida would begin play next season. Within a few years, Winnipeg and Quebec City had left for Phoenix and Colorado, Atlanta and Nashville were awarded franchises, and expansion to Minnesota and Columbus rounded out the league at an even 30 clubs. Bettman's American Dream was almost complete.

All that was left to satiate the new commissioner -- who had apprenticed under the wildly successful National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern -- was the Great American TV Contract, a cornerstone to any major sports league's financial success. The problem?

Stern was peddling basketball, which is played and understood across the United States. Bettman's wares were a much tougher sell, both in person and on television, where the puck still moves too fast for American sports fans who somehow never have trouble with a line drive or a 100-m.p.h. fastball.

Bettman should not be blamed for trying; every sports executive realizes that a national television deal in the U.S. is the economic foundation for modern day professional sports. But as the league convenes in Dallas this week, Bettman's grand plan is in the process of being downgraded from moderate success to abject failure.

For every fertile U.S. market such as Dallas, which took in the Minnesota North Stars in 1993 and has burgeoned into an excellent hockey city, there is a south Florida, where they are giving tickets away for Panthers games. For every Colorado, which celebrated its 500th sellout in Denver over the weekend, there is a Nashville. There, the Predators recently moved into top spot in the NHL's overall standings, then promptly drew less than 11,000 fans for a key division game against Detroit.

What really tips the scales, though, is what Bettman set out to acquire right from the start. Under his guidance, the NHL has gone through Fox, ABC, and ESPN, and now NBC and Versus in ever-decreasing rights deals. Hockey has reached rock bottom on the television front: a network deal that is worth nothing until NBC sees a highly unlikely profit; a cable deal with a channel that is carried scarcely throughout the States, and has returned national numbers in the 195,000-viewers range.

(That's about 27% of what CBC gets for the late Western game on its Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts, or less than half of what a Toronto game would draw for TSN in their Maple Leafs region.) The bottom line?

It was a helluva try, Gary. But it's just not working.

Sure, revenues have climbed slightly this year from last. And during all-star week in Dallas the league will trot out some hocus pocus numbers to refute what is becoming a systemic lack of interest in many U.S. markets.

In sports however, what matters is how many people are watching. On TV, NBC's opening week numbers were down 20% from last season. Versus -- the only U.S. carrier of tomorrow's All-Star Game -- can't bring in 200,000 viewers.

Is the All-Star Game lost on Versus, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were asked yesterday? Ovechkin deferred to Crosby for the answer:

"It's probably not as well known as some other [channels], but maybe that's where we come in," Crosby allowed. "That's hard for us to answer I think."

The NHL's other paper tiger is game attendance. By any standard, the NHL is in big trouble there.

"I was in Chicago last Sunday and Tuesday," a scout said over the weekend. "There weren't 6,000 people there either night. And I'm seeing a lot of that in the U.S. Los Angeles? For the most part, you won't see 10,000 people there.

"In Philly, they're really, really worried about next year, from a business perspective. They've got plenty of season tickets sold -- this year. But look at the stands. No one is using their tickets. What happens after you paid for season tickets but never used them? You don't renew."

In Boston, an Original Six club, The Boston Globe's Hall of Fame writer Kevin Paul Dupont estimates the Bruins did not draw more than about 9,000 fans for their first 10 weeknight games this season. In Washington, a new downtown arena and a committed owner in Ted Leonsis has failed to turn the tide -- even with the arrival of Ovechkin. Caps attendance is down about 800 people per game this season, but even that is open to doubt, with "attendance" having become a bogus figure in the new NHL.

The league counts giveaway tickets as "tickets distributed," which ends up on the bottom of the summary next to "Attendance."

St. Louis is last in the league in "attendance" and recently gave away free food at the concessions just to beef up the house for an NBC broadcast. The New York Islanders did not sell out this season until their 19th home game.

"Detroit? A lot of empty seats there. The tickets are sold, but they're not coming," another scout reported. "I've never, ever seen empty seats in Detroit. I was there for a Dallas game -- empty seats. A Nashville game -- empty seats. Montreal? Empty seats."

Neutral-site games. Fox pucks. An experiment with four-quarter hockey in the minors that fell flat. Now, a new uniform "system."

They've rewritten the rule book, yet the ultimate barometer of fan interest -- betting action in Las Vegas -- has not reached a measurable level. Major newspapers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles no longer send reporters on the road to follow their NHL teams.

After 14 years under Bettman, hockey is not the new kid on the block anymore, though in many U.S. markets, teams are still giving tickets away in the hope that if sports fans get into the rink once, they'll be hooked. But when those fans sit down in an arena that's half full and seriously lacking in atmosphere, they don't get hooked.

And just one season removed from the lockout, when NHL clubs had their payrolls -- and profits -- fixed in the new salary- cap world, ticket prices went up in 25 of 30 markets this season.

So, how do you fix it? Honestly, where would you start?


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So, how do you fix it? Honestly, where would you start?
If there's one place to start, it would be trying to get rid of Gary Bettman.

Is the All-Star Game lost on Versus, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were asked yesterday? Ovechkin deferred to Crosby for the answer:

"It's probably not as well known as some other [channels], but maybe that's where we come in," Crosby allowed. "That's hard for us to answer I think."
Atta' boy Ovechkin.

When in doubt, let Crosby speak. :thumbsup:

I don't like the guy much, but he thinks on his feet. :)

A shame that they have to be asked a question like that in the first place though. :(
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