I was in the produce section of my supermarket the other day, skeptically eying some overpriced portobello mushrooms, when I overheard two people near the mangos talking about an NHL game they were attending that night.
The NHL is playing again? Who knew?
Somewhat unconvinced, I looked through my local sports section when I got home and, sure enough, there were the NHL standings, nestled up next to the LPGA Q-school results.
The NHL took a year off -- to work out some labor-management issues, to change a rule or two and to find a new cable TV partner -- and, upon its return, two sets of reality are abundantly clear:
1. More people than ever are going to the games.
2. Less people than ever are watching the games.
The NHL broke records for attendance in the season's first two months. Scoring is up, the overtime shootout is popular and the two-line pass is being celebrated as the greatest invention since the carpool lane. Eight of 30 NHL teams have sold out every game, with 24 franchises even or ahead of their 2003-04 gate averages.
(On the other hand, the Washington Capitals are averaging a league-low 12,803 fans a game. I have a theory on this -- the residents of my former home town are saving their pennies so they can spend their tax dollars on the publicly funded baseball stadium, which now may cost in excess of $700 million. That's $700 million American! I hate to meddle, but if they can shave just, say, $1 million off the stadium cost, they could buy some new books for the schools.)
Alas, while the turnstiles click at most NHL arenas, TV remotes still click to other channels during most NHL games.
In its last season of televising the NHL, ESPN2 did a 0.2 rating for 50 games and ESPN did a 0.5 rating for 20 games. During the lost 2004-05 NHL season, ESPN found it could draw larger audiences replacing the games with, well, ALMOST ANYTHING.
Ah, who's laughing at taped billiards and taped poker now?
OLN -- the NHL's new national cable carrier -- is averaging about half of ESPN2's hockey numbers.
This is a polite way of saying that OLN is often getting a 0.1 rating.
(If it's really, really cold outside and Tavis Smiley doesn't have a really, really good guest on PBS, sometimes OLN gets an 0.2 rating.)
Let me put it to you this way: Howard Stern could point a Polaroid at his right armpit and get a 0.1 rating.
Anyway, it had been a long time since I had watched the NHL, so I decided I'd give it another shot. First I had to find OLN; if I were a fan of "Expedition Safari," I would've known exactly where it was. It turns out to be Channel 608 on my DirecTV -- right next to ESPNU!
The studio show had all the zip of a tax audit. With no Terry Bradshaw or Charles Barkley in sight, studio commentator Neil Smith, analyzing the Boston Bruins, offered, "I don't think they have good puck management."
Needless to say, I immediately fast-forwarded to the commercials.
(Speaking of which, why is the Marine Corps advertising on NHL games? How do you attract new recruits on telecasts drawing a 0.1 rating? They'd be better off passing out leaflets at a Hare Krishna revival.)
There was a "Mic'd Up" feature in which the only audio I heard was the Islanders' Mark Parrish saying, "Nice pass, Yorkie, atta boy."
The two games I watched were quite good, but the same problem arose that I always bring up to the disgust of hockey aficionados: one too many intermissions. Maybe two 15-minute breaks are fine for beer sales at the arena, but, from the comfort of our couches, it gives us one extra chance to surf away to other programming.
I did exactly that, wandering away from the Islanders-Blues game, and by the time I wandered back, "Hunting With Hank" was starting on OLN. Well, at least I got to see a shootout there.
Ask The Slouch
Q. Wayne Goldsberry of Bentonville, Ark., recently subdued and broke the neck of a deer that had crashed through a window into his daughter's house. Do you visualize this type of activity as a possible pay-per-view event? (Jim O'Brien; Racine, Wis.)
A. Only if they can get Jim Gray to work as a side yard reporter.
Q. If my buddy breaks out a Yuengling, instead of a Rolling Rock, while we're watching PBA bowling on ESPN, he has committed an unpardonable faux pas, hasn't he? (Wayne Killian; Wilmington, N.C.)
A. Your unsurpassed vigilance on this issue stirs me so much, I'm going to go fetch me a Rock right now.
Q. Have you noticed the alarming similarities between the Billick regime and the Nixon presidency? (Scott D. Shuster; Watertown, Mass.)
A. The buck-twenty five was in the mail the moment I saw the words "Billick regime."
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