Enough! Game-night 'experience' isn't about the game

Updated: March 31, 2006, 11:09 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

You're looking at the computer or cell phone, and this is on your screen, so what that means is:

COME ON, EVERYONE!

(Loud music is blaring from your speakers. It's something so obnoxious that, depending on where you are, your co-workers or spouse or German Shepherd don't like it.)

GET WITH THE PROGRAM!

(The letters are huge and flashing, and perhaps are accompanied by a picture of your favorite team's marquee player, whether it be Eric Staal or Mike Modano or Joe Sakic or Brad Richards or Ilya Kovalchuk or ... )

Bank Atlantic Center
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty ImagesTerry Frei believes all the flash and glam are taking us away from the game itself.

ONE, TWO, THREE ... READ!

Sorry if that's so condescending.

But attend more than a few NHL games in the right places -- meaning, virtually anywhere in the league -- and you tend to be affected by the numbingly generic "game-night presentation" on display every night.

So, when the home team goes on the power play, you are told in every loud way imaginable:

CHEER, CHILDREN, CHEER!

The major working assumption of those who have created this approach is not what they tell you -- that the game-night experience should be fun, fresh and enjoyable.

Instead, even as the NHL is going through an invigorating stretch run with considerable playoff-spot jockeying, the assumptions in many NHL arenas tend to be that:

• Everyone in the building has the intelligence and attention-span of a rutabaga and must be "entertained" every second. Plus, that 31.6 percent of the fans in the building are attending their first game ever and don't know the color of the blue line.

• Short of the deployment of the Dallas Cowboys' or the former Minnesota North Stars' cheerleaders at the portals, or something as obvious as a goal being scored, fans have to be told when to make noise. Such as when the home team IS GOING ON THE POWER PLAY! LOOK, HERE'S THE NOISE-METER, GET THAT DIAL MOVING!

• Every stoppage can have some sort of sponsored gambit, and it's even better when you can put a portable microphone in the hands of a screaming team employee asking a fan whether it's true or false that Jude Drouin scored 500 career goals. And the "Kiss Cam" still is funny the seven-millionth time you go through the couples and then show two guys on the opposing bench! What a riot!

• There's nothing wrong with continuing to use Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part II)" as the celebratory anthem in the wake of his latest legal problem, this one for with the Vietnamese authorities over his alleged sexual abuse of young girls. Hey, if it's good enough for every other professional sports team, it's good enough for the NHL. (What happened to "Tequila"?)

• If an NHL game sometimes seems more like the ECHL or a minor-league baseball game, what's wrong with that? Bring on the sumo skaters.

Absolutely, I've been critical of some of the NHL's archaic marketing practices in the past, and will continue to be as long as the league continues to cling to the notion that its praiseworthy emphasis on team rather than individuals means it can't promote its individual stars. There's a middle ground between the NBA's "me-me-me" culture and the NHL's generic marketing.

But in terms of game-night presentation, the NHL too often is following the NBA's lead.

As I've pointed out many times, I'm old enough to remember when the NHL's marketing strategy was turning on the beer taps. So, some of this is considerable improvement, but like many things in life, it has gone too far.

("Zamboni races! People love Zamboni races!")

At some point, it's insulting to the product -- as well as the fans -- when those in charge of the game-night experience make it clear they believe the game can't stand on its own two skates. Some of that is the product of those dual NBA-NHL ownership operations, with entertainment decisions being made by folks who believe one size fits all -- because that's what everyone says when they nod their heads at league meetings.

("Hey, that Germans-bomb-Pearl-Harbor clip from 'Animal House' never gets old!")

Perhaps the day of a sonorous voice on every NHL public-address system enlightening us with classy subtlety ("Bruins goal scored by numbaw 22, Brad Pawk") is long gone, never to return.

Some of the game-night innovations truly are clever, rather than the products of numbingly generic copycatting. And I'll even grant that I might be overreacting a bit because I travel around the league and the fan in (pick the city) does not know or care that the (pick the team) is doing much the same thing as 20 other teams in the league.

But so much of it has become lame, predictable, repetitive and insulting. Insulting to not just intelligent fans, but to the game itself.

This is not just a hockey phenomenon, of course.

Even the most staid of sports, baseball, long ago cranked up the decibel level and dumbed down its approach. With carnivals on the scoreboard and the speakers becoming jukeboxes, MLB stopped assuming that the beauty of the game was a father and son being able to talk to each other on a bonding outing or keeping score. Baseball long has been over-hyped as a metaphorical pastime, and its minutiae-obsessed press corps doesn't understand that we don't care how to read a breakdown of arm slotting in relation to the pitch count. The contradiction is that the folks in charge of the game-night presentation go to the other extreme, assuming that nobody in the stands any longer knows that "6-4-3" means a double play.

But that's baseball, realizing that flexing its muscles raises issues it would rather ignore.

Especially now that the NHL has improved its product and it has something to brag about again, can't the game be the thing?

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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