Over the past decade, the National Hockey League has been suffering from declining television audiences in the US. The trend has been accelerated by the season-long lockout in 2004-05 which - quite frankly - left a horrible taste in mouths of most casual American fans. Because of the size (and therefore dollars) wrapped up in the American television market, perhaps the largest subject of discussion among the NHL brass is how to win over more and more of US dollars.
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The crux of the problem is that hockey as a sport is not very television friendly. Actually, scratch that. Hockey involves the best conditioned athletes in professional sports playing a fast pace, often violent, and highly dramatic sport in which one team's fortunes can change in half a second. It's extremely TV friendly. It is not, however, very money friendly. Football and Baseball are slow paced and full of natural interruptions in the play that scream for the viewer to be bombarded with advertisements. Basketball doesn't really get dramatic until the last two minutes of the game and isn't impacted by commercial interruptions in terms of flow and it's pretty cheap to fund a basketball team - all you need is a ball and a hard flat surface. The game of hockey is one that is heavily dependent upon the building of momentum and a steady flow of action. Force too many long interruptions upon the sport (such as commercial breaks) and the quality of the game greatly suffers. Given that, it's perfectly understandable why American corporations - whose profits are so closely dependent upon the dollars generated from advertising - would be reluctant to encourage networks to push hockey to American audiences. Therefore, the NHL's reaction has been predictable: find ways to "Americanize" hockey in order to tap into a very lucrative market.
The question I wish they would ask is: "Do we really want too many Americans to like our sport?"
The obvious answer - the one that Gary Bettman and nearly all of the NHL team owners will give - is "DUH! Of course!" But consider this: Even recently, Americans have made "Moulin Rouge" a hit movie, Brittany Spears a hit musician, "American Idol" a hit TV show, NASCAR an increasingly popular "sport," McDonald's a choice food, and have elected George W. Bush as president twice (OK, that's debatable, but ONCE at least). Let's face it, for all the great accomplishments we as Americans have made - and they are numerous - far too many of our popular choices have really sucked.
What the game of hockey is providing is a unique look at what American style capitalism - arguably the most powerful influence on culture world wide - does to athletic and artistic ventures. Capitalism, for all of the success, efficiency, and prosperity that it brings to the economic sector, seems to have an extremely negative impact on sport and art in terms of quality. It seems that these days all of our music, art, and sport falls under the umbrella term dubbed the "entertainment industry." Which is the problem: the fact we feel it's perfectly acceptable to allow our entertainment to become industrialized. Sport and art are best when they are encouraged to enhance craft and skill. Industry, on the other hand, is by nature trying to maximize mass production, efficiency, and profitability. Too often the goals are exclusive of one another and in a capitalist society, industry too often wins.
A window of what the NHL is heading towards looks upon the NBA, where the players have become dominated by giants who run back and forth dunking a ball through a hoop in what has essentially become a contest of who can miss the basket less, not who can score most. Star players have become caricatures of themselves whose primary value to their teams and their sport is not necessarily deliver talented and committed play, but rather to make endorsements and generate publicity. Just consider how much of the focus in football, basketball, and baseball has shifted from teams to individuals.
In the end, I'm sure this is a futile argument. In order to keep itself from falling into complete obscurity, the NHL will have change itself so that it is more marketable, more soulless, more "American." We're already getting a peek of the alternative, which is a sport, despite its superiority, is being ridiculed for the apathy that Americans have towards it and its heavy foreign influence - much like the treatment higher art has received by being dubbed "weird" or "snobby." Ultimately, the NHL is not run by idiots and more money is certainly the desired endgame; the sport will industrialize itself and - assuming that the big three US sports don't feel that their profits will be too threatened by its growth - it will gradually be pushed into American television sets by advertisers and eventually gaining acceptance.
I only hope that before this happens, someone a lot closer to the commissioner's office than myself calls for the sport to do some serious soul-searching.
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