No Olympic bounce for NHL
After incredible tournament in Vancouver, TV hockey audience melted away
General rule: When you hear the terms "bounce" or "lift" applied to hockey, chances are good to excellent that you're not specifically talking about the game itself anymore.
Since the Olympics concluded, though, "bounce" has been a trendy word. As in, "The bounce from the Olympics should take the NHL to greater heights."
Well, no, now that you mention it. At NBC, for example, ratings for its hockey telecasts are up 13 percent overall this season, but they've remained flat since the Olympics. This despite Canada's pulsating overtime victory against the U.S. in the gold-medal game. No lift. And while the Versus numbers have jumped recently, most of those in the business agree it has more to do with the network finally getting its issues resolved with DirecTV and once again becoming part of that widely exposed package than with anything else.
The Olympic "bounce," in other words, is a myth.
But wait: That's business as usual.
Hockey shouldn't take this personally. Almost every Olympic quadrennial produces a "breakthrough" sport or event that, upon further review, doesn't wind up breaking all the way through.
That's a comical concept when applied to a history-rich sport like hockey anyway, but you can understand the root of it. When the Canadians were playing for the gold medal in their own country, with the U.S. as the designated black hat, it made for grand theater and killer ratings. More than 27 million people in the United States watched the game, and roughly the same number did so in Canada; astonishing, considering that it accounted for nearly 80 percent of the population of that country. Surely great things loomed.
But the reality is this: The NHL playoffs, which began Wednesday, remain one of television's ultimate niches. The Versus and NBC numbers, at their tip-top, rarely make a serious run beyond about a 1.0 rating, which equates to roughly 1.2 million viewers. Not precisely Olympian. (On Versus, its 52 regular-season games averaged 297,000 viewers.)
But then, people get heavily into the Olympics for reasons that have almost nothing to do with sport any sport. For that matter, they get into phenomena that often have nothing to do with sport. Ask the people who tried, mostly in vain, to track any real bounce for the sport of golf from the sensation of a young Tiger Woods (beyond the obvious hike in television ratings when Woods was in contention on the weekend). It barely tracked.
The NHL has made some strides that suggest a brighter future, and overall, these have little to do with the Olympic experience. Its marketing arms are doing good things in digital media, and the decision to promote big events like the Winter Classic has been golden (more of that, please, by the way). Some are suggesting that it's the Classic, not the Olympics, that could drive a pricier new TV deal. Corporate sponsors, meanwhile, got more interested after the Olympics, according to NHL executives, but how that translates into actual money remains to be seen.
It's interesting that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman makes that very distinction when it comes to the Olympics. Bettman is already on record as saying the league will consider not participating in the 2014 Winter Games, which disrupt the season, mess up the schedule, X out the All-Star Game and, in general -- in Bettman's estimation -- don't add the kind of value that a league can cash in on.
Though it's a mistake to abandon the Olympic model -- hockey is, after all, a genuinely international game -- Bettman has motivation to search for the bottom line. His league is in a desperate and ongoing search for revenue streams. The attempt to mainstream the sport in the United States continues to be a difficult sell. And while television ratings are not scripture, the numbers are certainly bleak enough to tell part of the story.
During the Olympics, as Sidney Crosby and the Canadians drove toward their gold medal and the U.S. team stood in its path, it was easy to want to jump on the enthusiasm and predict a league-wide bounce. After all, the Olympics are really cool.
They're also galvanizing in a way that the NHL playoffs, for obvious reasons, could never be. The bounce didn't go away; it simply never happened. And Gary Bettman probably noticed it first.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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