One Year After the Gold Medal Game, Has Hockey Made Tangible Progress?
February 28, 2011 7 Comments
This morning, more than 146,000 (mostly) young Americans are waking up and being told by their Facebook that they signed up for “National Hate Sidney Crosby Day.” I bet a lot of them will be kind of confused, and maybe trying to remember what that’s all about. They’ll rattle their brains for a couple of minutes, and then finally, it’ll dawn on them: “Oh, that friggin’ hockey game. Ugh, I remember that. That sucked, we should’ve won.” Then they’ll go back to stalking the people on their Facebook friends list they’ve never met and forget about it.
We’ve hit the one-year of the anniversary of what should be one of hockey’s all-time seminal moments. The United States-Canada Gold Medal Game was a thrilling, emotional, three-hour roller-coaster ride that captured the hearts of two nations. 27.6 million people watched the game in the United States on NBC (the most since 1980 for any hockey game), while an equally massive 16.6 million watched on CTV in the host nation, Canada (the most … well, ever).
The chants went up from hockey fans right then and there that perhaps this was hockey’s chance to crack the mainstream. Largely, however, the NHL failed to gain much by way of viewership that can be measured as of now. Teams that featured Olympians sold a few more tickets, but there has been no ratings bump. Perhaps it helped out come playoff time, when viewers tuned into VERSUS and NBC for the best ratings in almost a decade for a post-season. As for the regular season, however, we’re one year away, and ratings are barely going up, or even at worst with where they were last year.
Even on a grassroots level, it doesn’t appear to have brought more interest. ESPN’s John Buccigross is a hockey parent, and he doesn’t see much of a difference, as he told me via e-mail over the weekend, “I just don’t hear a lot of NHL talk around the rink . There are a few kids who know the players but they are rare so I wonder how the Olympics effect them.” He adds that it hasn’t given the league more of an impact on his own network’s SportsCenter, either, “Part of kids not talking hockey is that is we at Sportscenter don’t celebrate and cover NHL players outside of Crosby and Malkin. Kids get most of their sports from Sportscenter. Matt Duchene is the talent and excitement equivalent of John Wall of the Wizards yet America has no idea who Matt Duchene is because we don’t show Matt Duchene highlights.”
Part of the reason, that Buccigross suggested and I fully believe, is that NBC and the Olympics have such stringent highlight rules. “Because of all the highlight restrictions with Olympic video it’s challenging to have indelible Olympic images seared into our hard drives. When was the last time you saw Peter Forsberg’s postage stamp goal?” There will be no one-year anniversary replay of the Gold Medal Game on NHL Network, or VERSUS, or any of NBC’s conglomerate of networks. Even if it was a loss for the United States, it deserves to air somewhere just to remember what a wonderful game that was.
Another part of it could simply be that the Olympics do not have any tangible effect on hockey. A fact that Buccigross thinks keeps the league from being anything but bullish on continuing the players’ relationship with it, saying “Olympic hockey has very little real effect on the NHL. That is why Gary Bettman has not embraced it wholly-because I’m sure his owners don’t because it doesn’t help their bottom line. Do you ever watch a track and field event on TV that’s not the Olympic? No, you don’t. That’s how the non-believers (of hockey) approach hockey consumption – like we approach track and field consumption.”
Its a shame, but he’s right: clearly the Olympics were consumed like many of the sports were in Vancouver. The 8 million who tuned in on MSNBC to USA-Canada, the millions who kept tuning in to the afternoon weekday games on NBC as the US stormed to the Gold Medal Game, and then the nearly-30 million who tuned in to that US loss: many of them were hockey diehards, loving their sport’s time in the spotlight, the pride in their country the game brought to many. But it wasn’t to last, just like the boon after the Miracle on Ice didn’t.
In the end, maybe the Olympics aren’t what will turn casual sports fans to the NHL. Perhaps it’s another bygone tradition that has little relevance other than a two-week break from the doldrums of reality television and soap operas to celebrate country, and it has no real appeal to genuine sports fans. What if the only real effect is that a few more kids pick up the game as players?
Well, than that’s okay. Buccigross feels that there are other ways to win fans, and I agree with him when he says “There has never been a better time to be a hockey fan. I can listen to a game on sattelite radio in my car as it goes to a shootout, pull in my driveway and run inside my house and catch the shootout on the Center Ice Package before changing to NHL Network and watch the night’s highlights. I can check Twitter for any news before bed. I can wake up and check TSN and ESPN’s Stats and Notes. I can consume all day. If we can get kids to play hockey and then begin to consume hockey via all media then that will grow the game. We will have fans for life. That’s where the growth potential is – kids, the rink, and social media.”
But good lord, was it a fun couple of weeks. Hockey owned the American spotlight. It transcended sport, it transcended television. It became everything. Now, the goal is to slowly build so that the next time it comes around, it isn’t quite that big a surprise. So that maybe, even more people will see not only how great the game is, but maybe even recognize a few players. It’s a slow build, but a worthwhile one for our game.