Saturday, April 07, 2007

Playoff Pageantry and Drama... Somewhere

By: Paul Teeple

It all comes down to this: two of sport's oldest and most furious rivals to do battle for one final playoff spot in each team's last game of the year. The arena is a mad house, alternately ablaze with blue & white and red & blue. Each team is trying to best the other while holding off a hard-charging third contender that is moving in fast from the outside. It's all the drama that makes the end of the regular season worth a six month physical and emotional grind. It's the kind of night that reminds you what it means to be a sports fan.

Too bad you'll never see it.

Tonight at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the hometown Maple Leafs host the arch-nemesis Montreal Canadiens in the last game of the regular season. Montreal leads Toronto by what amounts to a half game in the Eastern Conference standings and tonight's game could clinch the final playoff spot for the Habs, catapult the Leafs into 8th by themselves and/or possibly give the Islanders new life with one game remaining on Sunday. And thanks to the NHL and their ludicrous television deal, you need to either live in Canada, purchase the NHL Center Ice package from your TV content provider or live close enough to a major Canadian market so that you can pick up CBC with your bunny ears.

Why go to all the trouble? Shouldn't such massively important games be nationally televised, if not over-the-air then at least on a nation-wide cable carrier? Well, come to think of it, yes. Yes they should. But they won't be.

You'll never find a similar button on
These are the days of a hockey fan's life thanks to the NHL and their nonsensical cable television deal with Versus (nee OLN). Versus, which is supposedly so enthusiastic about its NHL television deal, only has one (one!) national telecast per week, and it's on Mondays -- gravity of the games be damned. So when the season ends on a Sunday and there are huge games on a Saturday night... nothing. In fact, you know what's on Versus at 7pm? A show I've never heard of named "Holy @#$%*!" which is apparently like "Real TV" but for 'extreme' sports. You know, for all of the Worldwide Leader's misgivings, when ESPN carried the NHL they had games on multiple nights and if games at the end of the regular season had heightened importance they'd bump their billiards coverage on ESPN2 and find a way to bring the huge games to the masses.

Let's also take the NHL's contract with NBC out of the equation. Over-the-air national networks have never and will never change their schedules for sports.

When the NHL made their short-sighted cash grab with OLN in 2005, everyone who even had a cursory knowledge of sports and/or television knew that they'd screwed themselves. When a sport has marginalized its relevance with an increasingly boring product (at the time) and a decimating work stoppage, it's probably a BAD idea to move your national cable contract from a sports network in roughly 95 million households nationwide to a "sports" network with 65 million households nationwide. And that's just looking exclusively at the numbers.

Let's be honest: the difference between ESPN and Versus is WAY more than 30 million households. One network is THE name in sports broadcasting in America. Love 'em or hate 'em, when you're bored and want to watch sports, the first channel you go check out is ESPN. Not FSN, not CSTV, not FOX, not CBS, not NBC, not ABC. And most certainly not freaking Versus. ESPN is what TV people refer to as "destination viewing." For a fun way of telling the difference between ESPN and Versus, go to your buddy's place tonight to do some pre-gaming and ask 'em: "What channel is ESPN?" Then ask, "What channel is Versus?" You can make a drinking game out of it: five drinks if your buddy says "What the hell is Versus?"; chug if he says "Channel 608."

With a TV contract on ESPN, apparently ANYTHING can be a well-covered sport.
Admittedly, ESPN drew criticism from "hockey people" south of their border from their general disinterest in promoting their hockey broadcast and at the time the criticism was well deserved. But in this modern era where the Worldwide Leader goes out of its way to promote ANY sport they're broadcasting, I have extreme difficulty believing the NHL would suffer a similar fate today. All you need for solid proof of this thought is the Arena Football League. The past four years, ESPN went out of its way to discredit the AFL and treat it like less of a sport (deservedly so, might I add, it's a piece of crap). This year, however, ESPN has erred in the opposite direction, aggressively pushing its AFL broadcasts during its shows, running all AFL game highlights on SportsCenter and running AFL promos during high-profile NCAA, MLB and NBA broadcasts.

Additionally, a lot of hockey pundits advocated the NHL use the NASCAR blueprint for regaining a foothold in the American sports psyche. Well, who do you suppose has the NASCAR cable contract these days, which they are summarily promoting the living crap out of? You guessed it.

What it boils down to is this: everybody knows the NHL dropped the ball on its TV contract. What they need to do now is make it right by their fans; swallow your pride, Commissioner Bettman, and go back to ESPN.

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