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Albom doesn't get it

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http://www.freep.com/article/20090529/COL01/905290355/1048/sports/Here+s+your+finals+--+what+s+your+hurry?

Here's your finals -- what's your hurry?

BY MITCH ALBOM

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Dear NBC and NHL:

I'll begin with a simple question. Do either of you actually like hockey?

I think I can answer for NBC (a.k.a. "Nothing But Conan"), because it is clear the network would rather break out in a deadly skin rash than show the Stanley Cup finals on a weeknight.

Honestly, NBC (a.k.a. "Not Bleepin' Canadians!") treats this sport like an ugly cousin it has to take to the prom. There are shotgun marriages that have more love. NBC doesn't even pay the NHL to broadcast its games. In fact, the NHL has to wait until NBC has recouped its production costs before getting a penny (and has to help sell the advertising, which is a bit like having to bake the Girl Scout cookies, then buy and eat them, too).

And this includes the championship round!

Which now begins Saturday night -- a fast three days after the Red Wings won the Western Conference finals -- with Games 1 and 2 a mere 24 hours apart, thus wiping out much of the home-ice advantage the Wings fought so hard to earn during the regular season.

Or at least that's the news as I write this. Until a few days ago, we all thought the finals were starting June 5. Then, suddenly, a new schedule -- as if they're arranging a play date during flu season.

Imagine if the NFL worked this way?

"You going to the Super Bowl?"

"Not sure. When is it?"

"Maybe Sunday. Maybe Wednesday."

"I dunno. Who else is going?"

Hey, this isn't a pizza party, guys. It's the Stanley Cup finals. It's the biggest stage for the greatest sport in the world -- at least to hockey lovers.

Which we in Detroit are.

And which TV -- in New York and L.A. -- is not.

Expected to work overtime

But that's no reason to punish the players. During the postgame media sessions after Detroit eliminated Chicago, coach Mike Babcock and several Wings seemed bewildered at the timing of the finals.

"Normally, when you win in five games, you get this little break -- normally," Babcock said. "I don't know if we're making up for lost time ... or whatever we're doing. They don't ask me these questions."

Of course not. Players and coaches should just shut up and do as they're told -- even though they ARE the sport. So the Wings, despite their captain Nicklas Lidstrom and superstar Pavel Datsyuk ailing with injuries, have to suck it up and be ready for Saturday night and then -- bang! -- Sunday night because NBC likely doesn't want to use a weeknight and run the risk of an overtime game that -- heaven forbid! -- might cut into Conan O'Brien's debut week on "The Tonight Show."

This way, by broadcasting Games 1 and 2 this weekend and Game 5 next Saturday -- Games 3 and 4 are on Versus -- NBC (a.k.a. "Never Been Checked") won't even use up a weeknight.

And it can pray this ends before a Game 6.

Better than a monologue

Of course, NBC always could do what it did a few years ago during a conference finals game -- just dump the overtime onto a cable channel, which it did to Buffalo and Ottawa. The reason? It had commitments to show the Preakness two-hour prerace coverage.

Listen, Gary Bettman, when your league counts less than horses warming up, you better wonder about the relationship.

Here's a question: Do you think if Sidney Crosby were nursing an injury, they would rush into these finals? Don't expect an honest answer.

Hey, I understand ratings, star power, advertising, revenue sharing. I just don't think they should dictate something as important as the Stanley Cup finals. Years from now, when nobody remembers what TV show was on what network, the results of this series will be in the books, part of hockey lore. That should matter. That should be protected.

But Bettman, desperate for league credibility, will do whatever the networks want -- even though they would laugh him out of the office if he actually asked for, you know, money in exchange one of the greatest traditions in the history of sports.

As Wings forward Marian Hossa said, "You get the Stanley Cup finals once a year. Why do you rush it? What if the first game goes to three or four overtimes? Then we have to start again the next night? I don't think that's smart."

Smart exits when you're begging for coverage. But protecting the game and its history should not. Maybe one day, this league and a network actually will find each other attractive. Till then, it's four games in six days, and lots of black coffee.

About the bolded part.... Obviously Mitch doesn't get it. The NHL needs NBC far more than NBC needs the NHL. So the NHL does what NBC wants. If they do not like it, find another network. Why is that so hard to understand? NBC is a business and answers to shareholders. It's not their job to help rest hockey players and satisfy the NHL. Yes it stinks but that's the reality. Whining about it without offering any solutions is just populist schtick, which is Albom's speciality.

The league should just bythe airtime themselves from a network, sell the ads, and transmit the CBC feed to reduce production costs. I have no idea how much that costs but until they get more leverage then that's their only option unless they go to Versus or the NHL Network for the playoffs.

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I don't know. I think Albom gets it. That doesn't mean he can't be upset with how the NHL sold its soul to NBC. Maybe it was necessary, but it still sucks.

On another note, I don't understand why the NHL tries so hard to make sure it is on network television. The vast majority of households have cable/satellite. If they want to stick with VS, then just stick with VS. It's pretty silly to have the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals back to back a mere three days after the conclusion of the last round. Everyone freaked out about Monday Night Football going to ESPN, but I don't think it has turned out to be a big deal. Now, you could argue that the Super Bowl would never be on cable. But if you are going to show games 3 and 4 on cable, why not the whole series?

I give Albom credit here for bringing up the Conan O'Brien issue. I didn't even think of that, and it is obviously the reason it was done this way. The original plan was to have game 1 on friday the 5th and game 2 on sunday.

The league and its television partners should work together. That isn't happening in this case, and the article was right to point it out.

And I also think that if Crosby was hurting, we would see the series start on Sunday.

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The NHL was in a no-win situation. If the games were only on Versus, look how many people would mock the NHL for not having its Finals available on a "real" network. If the games didn't start until next weekend, look how many would be mocking the NHL for killing momentum with a 9-day layoff. Like Oblong says, the NHL needs (or at least wants) the NBC far more than NBC needs the NHL.

One way out would have been the NHL this week cutting a deal to reduce NBC's obligation to the Finals from 5 games to 4 and increasing Versus' role from 2 games to 3. That way, you could have started the Finals on Saturday on NBC, gone with Versus for Monday and Wednesday and Friday, and then NBC the rest of the way. Or going back a bit, if the NHL foresaw such a scheduling crunch they shouldn't have had so many extra days off during the conference finals.

And as I've stated before, I don't think 2 days off between series is unusual, nor are back to back games w/o travel in the Finals that onerous. It's only a big issue because Lidstrom and Datsyuk are hurting. The Pens won in 4, the Wings won in 5, if the Pens gained a slight advantage from the schedule they did so only by successfully sweeping their opponent while the Wings did not.

As for cable coverage, I think that's where it's headed. Talk about getting the NHL on ESPN, which could happen very soon, is more about ESPN replacing NBC than ESPN replacing Versus.

Edited by lordstanley

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I agree with Albom. NBC is basically the villain here, not the NHL. Hockey, generally, the Cup finals specifically, does not get the same respect, or much respect all, from the networks, IMO. NBC is concerned about their ratings and revenues far more than they care about hockey, the playoffs, or the NHL.

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Mitch Albom lives in Detroit now? I thought he moved to Cali a few years back.

Disclaimer: I'm not a fan of the arrogant fellow, who claims to speak for Detroiters, and has been known to make up lies to support his story.

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On another note, I don't understand why the NHL tries so hard to make sure it is on network television. The vast majority of households have cable/satellite. If they want to stick with VS, then just stick with VS.

The real issue is that Versus is not available on a lot of cable systems and even if it is, I'd wager to guess that many people don't even realize they have it. Hence the NHL goes into this clearly inferior arrangement to ensure that A) the game is on a channel people have heard of and B) that gets at least some promotion on a channel people watch. Until the league raises its popularity enough that ESPN becomes interested again or Versus raises its profile and distribution, that's the way it's going to be. Given the quality of some of the broadcasts this playoffs though, I wouldn't be waiting on the latter.

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I agree with Albom. NBC is basically the villain here, not the NHL. Hockey, generally, the Cup finals specifically, does not get the same respect, or much respect all, from the networks, IMO. NBC is concerned about their ratings and revenues far more than they care about hockey, the playoffs, or the NHL.

Well, that's an interesting comment, but isn't that what NBC is in business for? They aren't in the business of propping up sports corporations, they are in the business of selling advertising which is based on viewership. The NHL is not entitled to being shown on any network.

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The real issue is that Versus is not available on a lot of cable systems and even if it is, I'd wager to guess that many people don't even realize they have it.

I have a hard time believing that it isn't available on a lot of cable systems. I'm sure there are some that don't have it in HD. And there may be a small few that do not carry it all. As far as not knowing where to find it, that's ridiculous. Anyone who has any interest in being able to watch the game will be able to find it. All they have to do is bring up the guide and scroll though until they see something that says "VS" or "Stanley Cup Hockey." No digital cable? Scroll through your 40 channels until you see guys on skates.

The mindset that maybe you will attract a non-fan who is only flipping through network channels on a Saturday night is crazy. This person is not going to all of a sudden decide to watch a hockey game.

And if any of this was really a concern, then what happens during game 3 and 4? The poor hockey fan just sits on his couch and cries because he isn't sure exactly which channel the game is on? The NHL has been on VS for years. People know where to find it.

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I agree with Albom. NBC is basically the villain here, not the NHL. Hockey, generally, the Cup finals specifically, does not get the same respect, or much respect all, from the networks, IMO. NBC is concerned about their ratings and revenues far more than they care about hockey, the playoffs, or the NHL.

That hardly makes NBC a "villain". Might as well blame your fellow man for not watching hockey often enough. "NBC" is an entity and a for-profit business, not some guy sitting on the couch with beer and chips.

As for Versus, I know this would affect a tiny minority of people, but I have never found a hotel room that carries Versus. Often in May I go to Seattle or San Francisco or L.A. for family weekends and am never able to find the game unless I go to a sports bar (and not just any regular sports bar, only one that has tons of TVs turned to about 10 different channels). Ozzie mentioned the same difficulty, noting that his Chicago hotel room didn't carry the Pittsburgh-Carolina series.

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To satisfy NBC, the NHL apparently agrees to 3 SC final games in 4 days.

Last time back-to-back final games were played was 1955 ---- Detroit vs. Montreal.

Interesting article on this topic by SI's Michael Farber. Farber point out that,

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/michael_farber/05/28/cup.shedule/?cnn=yes

"The network pays the NHL in rights fees exactly the number of combined playoff wins by Montreal and St. Louis this spring -- yes, zero -- but it has a disproportionately loud voice in scheduling the league's showcase event."

Yes, NBC is in it for the money but little of anything else certainly not promoting the game. To hell with hockey or its fans too. NBC has little incentive other than to cover its bottom line -- its profits and shareholders.

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Versus is owned by comcast, and it's not quite as easy buying programming from your competitor, as it is from an independent vendor such as viacom.

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"NBC" is an entity and a for-profit business, not some guy sitting on the couch with beer and chips.

True, but like millions of other viewers, I do buy the beer and chips they love to advertise .... so I guess that makes me a stakeholder ....haha. yes, no?

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I have a hard time believing that it isn't available on a lot of cable systems. I'm sure there are some that don't have it in HD. And there may be a small few that do not carry it all. As far as not knowing where to find it, that's ridiculous. Anyone who has any interest in being able to watch the game will be able to find it. All they have to do is bring up the guide and scroll though until they see something that says "VS" or "Stanley Cup Hockey." No digital cable? Scroll through your 40 channels until you see guys on skates.

The mindset that maybe you will attract a non-fan who is only flipping through network channels on a Saturday night is crazy. This person is not going to all of a sudden decide to watch a hockey game.

And if any of this was really a concern, then what happens during game 3 and 4? The poor hockey fan just sits on his couch and cries because he isn't sure exactly which channel the game is on? The NHL has been on VS for years. People know where to find it.

I don't have hard stats (sadly) but this is the best I could find on short notice:

http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/article/129971

Versus is available in "about 75[%] of the total Chicago TV market," and Blackhawks Chair Rocky Wirtz said, "A lot of people don't even realize that Versus exists."
Versus earned a 2.37 local rating in Chicago for Thursday's Blackhawks-Canucks Game One, and Wirtz said, "That's probably the highest (Versus has) ever been in Chicago." While Game One went up against TNT's coverage of Game Six of the Celtics-Bulls playoff series and a Cubs game, the 2.37 rating translates to less than 83,000 HHs and is "only a little better than half" of the 4.52 local rating that CSN Chicago averaged for all six telecasts of the Blackhawks-Flames first-round series.

If I could find a good source for national data, I'm sure the 75% number would be about right as compared to a network like ESPN, and that's not including issues such as the fact that on many of those cable systems, Versus is a higher tier channel than ESPN.

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Well, that's an interesting comment, but isn't that what NBC is in business for? They aren't in the business of propping up sports corporations, they are in the business of selling advertising which is based on viewership. The NHL is not entitled to being shown on any network.

Just quoting this to drive the point home. NBC is in the business of selling advertising, not accomodating sports leagues. If the NHL were more popular, they could call the tune, and NBC would follow. They aren't, so NBC gets to call the shots. The NHL needs NBC, but NBC does not need the NHL.

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As with most things NHL, there is really only one villain. It's the same guy that's taken the sport away from his most diehard fanbase and diluted the league talent level to chase owner expansion fees. The same guy that played hardball with ESPN and lost.

Once the NHL gets a real commissioner with real vision then maybe they'll start moving back up the national sports landscape. Until this time, I don't blame any of the networks for treating the sport like 2nd tier programming in most markets.

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http://www.freep.com/article/20090529/COL01/905290355/1048/sports/Here+s+your+finals+--+what+s+your+hurry?

About the bolded part.... Obviously Mitch doesn't get it. The NHL needs NBC far more than NBC needs the NHL. So the NHL does what NBC wants. If they do not like it, find another network. Why is that so hard to understand? NBC is a business and answers to shareholders. It's not their job to help rest hockey players and satisfy the NHL. Yes it stinks but that's the reality. Whining about it without offering any solutions is just populist schtick, which is Albom's speciality.

The league should just bythe airtime themselves from a network, sell the ads, and transmit the CBC feed to reduce production costs. I have no idea how much that costs but until they get more leverage then that's their only option unless they go to Versus or the NHL Network for the playoffs.

Yeah, I think that's true. NBC doesn't need the NHL. In fact, it's probably a nuisance to them more than anything. But that's the problem right there I think. The NHL needs ESPN more than it needs NBC. We (every hockey fan ever) blame Bettman for a lot of things, but his grudge against ESPN, I think, is by far his biggest sin. Versus is simply atrocious, from the camera men to Engblom's hair. NBC sells Crosby, and that's about it.

It's the definition of a no-win situation for the NHL, but it's their own fault.

As far as the league screwing the Wings over, I think most Wings fans are used to it. Never stopped them before. Who knows? It could benefit the Wings. Ya just really never know when it comes to these kind of things until the games start.

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If the NHL were more popular, they could call the tune, and NBC would follow.

Interesting comment in the SI article I posted above in that the rumor is that if NBC wanted to change the color of the paint in the goalie creases to lavender instead of blue, Bettman & the NHL would send out a minion with a color palet, and it would be done. Don't be surprised if that happens. As a guy who's on the couch drinking beer, eating chips and having to endure the mindless commericials NBC gets paid a lot of money by advertisers, I'd like to think my interests should be considered. Some of you guys sound like executives for NBC to me.

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The NHL had a very, very good thing with ESPN before the lockout. Nobody else was going to give them 4-6 games per week during the regular season, then cover virtually all of the playoffs. Bettman is the one who doesn't get it.

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The NHL had a very, very good thing with ESPN before the lockout. Nobody else was going to give them 4-6 games per week during the regular season, then cover virtually all of the playoffs. Bettman is the one who doesn't get it.

Now the problem is, the NHL will have a very hard time getting back on ESPN. The NBA is a ratings powerhouse and no way is ESPN going to dump them for the NHL.

ESPN broadcasts the NBA every other night in the playoffs. I don't think the NHL would like only being showed on nights ESPN isn't showing NBA games.

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Regarding the NHL/ESPN thing, wasn't it really the case that ESPN left the NHL, not the other way around? At least that's what I recall about all that. I'm not so quick to blame Bettman for all of that, but to be honest, I do think the NHL would be better off with a different commissioner. First off, I really think the Commissioner needs to be HQ'd in Toronto, or at least in Canada, where the game really has its origins and could be promoted better. Bettman in NYC where he competes with the NFL and MLB is not where the NHL and its decision makers should be.

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Interesting comment in the SI article I posted above in that the rumor is that if NBC wanted to change the color of the paint in the goalie creases to lavender instead of blue, Bettman & the NHL would send out a minion with a color palet, and it would be done. Don't be surprised if that happens. As a guy who's on the couch drinking beer, eating chips and having to endure the mindless commericials NBC gets paid a lot of money by advertisers, I'd like to think my interests should be considered. Some of you guys sound like executives for NBC to me.

Your interests are considered. And then weighed against the interests of millions of other people making different decisions and guess what? There's more of them than there are of you.

This is like asking if you can use someone's bathroom while yours is being repaired and then dictating when it should be available to use. It's NBC's network. They call the shots until it makes financial sense to not call the shots.

And I don't see why it's a bad thing for NBC to consider Conan O Brien. It's only one of the most successful and famous television shows in history. This will be the third new host in like 50 years. 25 years from now people will still talk about Conan O Brien's debut on the Tonight Show. Are people still talking about the 1984 Stanley Cup Finals?

If the games were on NBC next week and went into overtime extending into Conan's debut, NBC would switch over. They'd be stupid not to and any person in charge who didn't want to should be fired.

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Now the problem is, the NHL will have a very hard time getting back on ESPN. The NBA is a ratings powerhouse and no way is ESPN going to dump them for the NHL.

ESPN broadcasts the NBA every other night in the playoffs. I don't think the NHL would like only being showed on nights ESPN isn't showing NBA games.

You've got that right. NBA is getting monster ratings this spring. ie., ratings for 8 NBA 2009 conference finals games 25% higher than 8 baseball 2008 LCS games. NHL might get some main ESPN games in the regular season, but on weeknights NHL playoff games would probably only be on ESPN2.

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This situation can be avoided in the future if the NHL moves back to ESPN.

The whole point (as it see it) of the deal with NBC is to provide exposure to the league. Each club pockets less than $100,000 in TV revenue from their contract with NBC (and that's with good ratings) so it certaintly not about revenue. Somebody at the NHL needs to ask the question of whether it's worth jacking up THE event of hockey for what little exposure they gleam from being shown on network television.

If they're on ESPN, they don't need to worry about a network deal because ESPN is big enough on its own.

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Regarding the NHL/ESPN thing, wasn't it really the case that ESPN left the NHL, not the other way around?

Both partially true. ESPN would have renewed with the NHL, but with a deal closer to that of the NBC (ie, profit-sharing only) than that offered by Versus ($85mm rights fee). The league went for the instant money, long-term vision be damned - just like it did with expansion that provided "extraordinary" revenue for awhile that owners became accustomed to. The NHL was also banking on Versus getting rights to NFL football (Thursday night games) and maybe even MLB, neither of which materialized but if it had would have legitimized Versus and been an impetus to get Versus into more homes.

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You've got that right. NBA is getting monster ratings this spring. ie., ratings for 8 NBA 2009 conference finals games 25% higher than 8 baseball 2008 LCS games. NHL might get some main ESPN games in the regular season, but on weeknights NHL playoff games would probably only be on ESPN2.

But even ESPN2 is more readily available than Versus I would imagine.

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