BOB MOON: Just last night, the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers clinched their first berth in the semifinals in 10 years. Great news for New York hockey fans. Maybe better news for the NHL. The sport’s been in a long, slow decline. Live attendance remains strong. But TV ratings are a fraction of what they were back when the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was on the ice.
Our sports business analyst Ed Derse is here to explain why the ice is no longer so cool. Thanks for joining us, Ed.
ED DERSE: My pleasure, Bob.
MOON: So, I confess: I have been to one hockey game in my life — a few years ago, a Mighty Ducks game. They’ve even changed the name of the team, or shortened it since I went. It was pretty exciting, but it completely left my consciousness since then. Does anybody really care about hockey now?
DERSE: Well, it depends on how you define “Does anyone really care.” In terms of attendance, yeah, people care — about 17,000 a game showed up. Slightly record attendance this year, but mostly flat. But it has a very loyal, hardcore audience. In terms of television ratings, it’s much more problematic. Their national ratings are flat. They did about 1.1 million households on NBC and 160,000 households on Versus, the old OLN. It’s the regional ratings that are down, and that’s a real problem, ’cause most people watch most games on their regional sports networks. Even poker is out-drawing NHL playoff games these days. And in the long-term perspective, ratings are down more than 50 percent against 10 years ago.
MOON: Out of sight, out of mind. How much was being out of sight in 2005, when they just about wiped out the whole season with those labor troubles, how much did that affect things, and does it still affect things?
DERSE: Well, the 2005 lockout, which lasted 310 days — almost a full year — was certainly devastating. The American population doesn’t really have a lot of tolerance for sports going away. You have to earn that back after that happens. And in a modern media environment, where having just hardcore fans isn’t enough, it’s hard to get those casual fans back. But hockey has other kinds of problems as well. I mean, there’s a lack of identity with the players. Most of the players in the league are foreign. It’s harder for people to identify with them, because they don’t have a long history with them. We all know Peyton Manning
, but we knew Peyton Manning not just when he was the Colts’ quarterback, but when he was the quarterback at the University of Tennessee. You know, most people haven’t played hockey, so it’s hard. You know, we’ve gone out and thrown the football, shot a basketball, pitched a baseball around the backyard. But how many kids actually have an opportunity to strap on a pair of skates and play a game of hockey, you know, with their friends in the afternoons? And then, the last problem is it’s not really a great sport on television. Players are covered up, the puck moves very fast, half the time you can’t see it when it goes in the goal. But it’s a much better sport live.
MOON: Well, I do know that it is exciting live. So what are the upsides? How do they build on those strengths?
DERSE: Well, the playoffs are great. Great thing about the NHL is when the playoffs come, players play hard from the opening whistle to the end buzzer. Unlike the NBA, where maybe the teams don’t play so hard until the fourth quarter. They play in these shifts, low-scoring game they all play very, very hard. Then you have the Sidney Crosby
effect, who’s the young star of the league — who the NHL hopes will be the next Wayne Gretsky. And if he is the next Wayne Gretsky, it’s gonna really help the league. And then they need to change the nature of the game itself. It’s a little bit too stop-start. If they make it more fluid, I think it will be better. Rather than being soccer on ice, these days, it more resembles frozen water polo.
MOON: Our sports business analyst Ed Derse is vice president of interactive media at Fox Sports International. His views on Marketplace are all his own, right Ed?
DERSE: Yes, they are.
MOON: Thanks for joining us.
DERSE: You’re welcome.
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