Friday, June 09, 2006

Breaking News: Hockey Isn't Widely Popular In The U.S.

Two games into the Stanley Cup Finals and the series' main story line has emerged as expected. Is it the injury to Edmonton goalie and Conn Smyth candidate Dwayne Roloson? Nope. The Cup quest of ring-less veteran Rod Brind'Amour? Guess again. The meteoric rise of 'Canes rookie goaltender Cam Ward leading his team to the cusp of glory? Of course not.

No, the story of the Finals is the poor ratings the series is getting/going to get on television. It's been talked and written about to death, but a recent article on Slate (always known for their insightful sports reporting) caught my eye.

The main point of Chris Shott's unneccisarily self-indulgent "Ice Guys Finish Last" (original title), is presumably that the NHL shouldn't strive to be more than a niche sport but rather should embrace its cult-like following (if you read the actual article, don't give up - he gets to this point eventually).

Shott starts off with a largely accurate statement:
If you're an American who's still paying attention to the NHL playoffs, chances are you're either a) a lower-rung staffer on the local sports desk, or b) an obsessive, possibly mulleted, devotee of a largely foreign pastime.
Fair enough, I guess, though Shott is already equating being a hockey fan with either a crappy employment situation or a personality disorder that may or may not be coupled with a woefully outdated sense of personal style. Then, after a short trip down memory lane (around which I wish I could have detoured), begins the absurdity:
Residents of Omaha, Neb., don't have the inalienable right to watch Australian rules football, and a guy in... Raleigh, N.C.... shouldn't be able to flip on the tube and watch hockey any ol' time he pleases. He certainly shouldn't be able to take a break from sipping on his sweet tea to go attend the Stanley Cup Finals. How many of the 18,928 so-called "Caniacs" who filled Raleigh's RBC Center on Wednesday would be following this year's Stanley Cup Finals if the Montreal Canadiens were playing the Oilers? I'm guessing six.
Huh? First of all, residents of Omaha, Neb. don't have the inalienable right to watch Nebraska Cornhuskers football either. I'm not sure what point he's trying to make here. To what, exactly, does one "have inalienable rights... to flip on the tube and watch... any ol' time he pleases"? The weather channel? QVC? Static? Perhaps Shott is merely pointing out that market forces determine what will be available where and when. Do you want "Chris" or "Christopher" on that Pulitzer?

Then the dig at 'Canes fans, all of them slack-jawed yokels who spend their days cleaning the tobacco-spit from their overalls and arguing over whether Dale Earnhardt was the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time or the greatest human being to ever walk the earth (all this coming, by the way, from a writer who grew up in West Virginia. I believe the clinical term is "projection"). Again I fail to see the point. Perhaps Shott is a bitter Sabres devotee from the "Carolina isn't worthy" camp that has been rearing it's bitter head in the wake of their team's Conference Finals loss, but if he's trying to make a legitimate point, I'd ask him how many of the 20,475 Dallas Mavericks "fans" that filled American Airlines Center last night would be following this year's NBA Championship if it the Toronto Raptors were playing the Sacramento Kings? My guess is not many. People are, for the most part, fans of teams first and sports second. It's natural to lose enthusiasm for a sport once your team is no longer competing for a championship, just look at the hockey Blogosphere over the past two months.

Shott continues, diverting his attention from sellout crowds of undeserving bandwagon fans to - what else - hockey's low TV ratings:
Of course the ratings are gonna suck. It's hockey. That's why the NHL needs to stick with OLN, which appreciates all the bum ratings it can get. Take the week of May 22, when OLN attracted a reported viewership of 426,355. That's a terrible tally by NBC standards. OLN, on the other hand, crowed that this was its "most-watched week ever."
Comparing OLN to NBC. That makes sense. In Shott's world it's better to be a big fish in a small pond (though that doesn't exactly explain why he, as a guppy, would enter the Lake Superior of journalism that is New York), or, perhaps more accurately, it's better to date the homliest girl on the block because it doesn't matter what you look like - you're Brad Pitt to her. But the good stuff is coming up (I promise):
Moving the sport from one network to another isn't enough to cure pro hockey's ills. If the league wants to get serious about its long-term survival, it should eliminate several teams. I propose that we say goodbye to the entire Southeast Division.
Um, yeah. The division has had the Eastern Conference Champion in five of the last ten years, has some of the most exciting players in the game and will likely hoist its second-straight Cup in a few days. But these teams are killing the sport.

More silly and baseless generalizations follow about how relatively strong hockey is in the northeast (where, unlike in the south, teams have been located for decades - name one Southeast Division team that has been playing in its current location for more than fifteen years) before the article mercifully ends (with another dig at those hillbilly Hurricane fans).

Which brings me (finally) to my point: why care when some alleged fan/writer a largely-negative article about hockey? Here's my bottom line. The reason hockey fans should care when articles like this are written is that these articles aren't speaking to hockey fans - they're speaking to the rest of the sports (and non-sports) world who may be casual hockey fans and telling them that hockey's a joke, that the League's a joke, etc., thus dissuading them from getting to better know the sport that we all already know and love. Obviously what Chris Shott writes about hockey doesn't impact my enjoyment of the sport one bit. But truth be told, I wouldn't mind sharing my enjoyment with 18,000+ the next time I'm at the Verizon Center and Shott's condescension and ignorance lessens the chance of that happening.

Now if you'll excuse me, being from Maryland I have to go exercise my inalienable right to play some lacrosse, pick some crabs and down some Natty Bo.

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