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Indifference Maker

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page D01

There must be something to say about the National Hockey League -- but I can't think of a thing. Where the NHL should be in my consciousness, there is instead a blank. A giant neutral zone of I-could-care-less-ness. If the season is canceled, it will just be substituting a vacancy for void. It should be canceled forever.

I'm sure I should be more upset about the precarious state of the NHL, and what the loss of the season means for the future of the league. I'm just sure I should be. But so many other things seem more interesting and important. SpongeBob's proclivities. Climate change and greenhouse gases. Whether Martha Stewart can stay clean when she gets out, or whether she becomes another recidivism statistic. Hillary Clinton's flu symptoms, and the comeback of electric football also occupy my mind more than hockey lately.

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How can you miss something that wasn't really there in the first place, and hadn't been since about 1999?

Watching the impasse between Commissioner Gary Bettman and players' association executive director Bob Goodenow is about as much fun as watching your average midseason NHL game. Except a labor negotiation might draw better TV ratings.

Bettman and Goodenow continue to muck around over salary caps, luxury taxes and internal audits. Players offered a 24-percent rollback in salaries in their last proposal, but owners insist that's not good enough and that they've lost over $1.8 billion in the last 10 years. Owners claim 74 percent of the league's revenues go toward players' salaries, but the players claim owners hide income. Who's right?

Who cares?

Frankly, it's irrelevant. What neither side seems to recognize is that nobody misses them. What we're seeing is a mass abandonment of hockey as a spectator sport. There are too many teams, and the season is interminable and cluttered at 1,230 games. Since Wayne Gretzky retired in '99, the game has degenerated to wrestling on skates, and brawling has replaced strategy. Tell the sporting public that the NHL may be the first major sport in North America to wipe out an entire season -- that for the first time since a flu epidemic in 1919, a Stanley Cup champion might not be crowned -- and it shrugs and flips to a poker tournament.

In 142 days of the lockout, a total of 775 games have not been played. And you know what? The life of the average American sports fan has not been shattered -- in fact, the hockey audience has found other things that it likes better.

So whether the NHL knows it or not, the relevant numbers aren't on the negotiating table. These are the relevant numbers:

• Replacement programming on ESPN2, a jumble of poker, reruns and log rolling, is averaging twice the ratings of the NHL. Arena Football earns better ratings than the NHL these days. So does WNBA basketball.

• A CNN/USA Today Gallup poll found that 50 percent of people surveyed said they wouldn't be disappointed if the season was canceled. Only 12 percent said they would be "very disappointed."

• The NHL Fans Association cites a survey of 177 male "regular NHL viewers" that found the men, suddenly with time on their hands, are turning to the Internet (51 percent), or spending more time with their families (32 percent) or just puttering around the house (25 percent). Fifteen percent have turned to other sports. Here is a bad sign: Just eight percent of respondents said they are watching other hockey programming. In other words, their interest in the game is tenuous.

The NHL had a big audience problem even before the lockout -- TV ratings in the United States were the lowest in years. The league just signed a two-year bargain basement deal with NBC that's believed to be worth only about half as much as its previous $600 million contract with ABC. The NHL also signed a one-year deal with ESPN. Both networks have options for the future. But given the washout of this season, combined with profound lack of audience interest, what are the chances they will want to re-up at even those cheap rates?

More likely, the networks will significantly reduce their coverage -- or drop the league altogether.

The supreme irony of the lockout is that both sides are negotiating over revenue that could very well be nonexistent. What the owners and players have failed to realize is that all of their in-fighting is over other people's money, money that is not theirs but the customers'. It's money from ticket buyers and TV viewers, and it simply may not be there any more. They forgot one small but crucial point: People don't have to go to NHL games. It's a choice.

The league made its choice, negligence of the audience, followed by a lockout. The audience has made its choice: indifference.

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