I was headed out to my weekly yoga class this afternoon (it helps with my skating) but first veered by the TV to check out the Caps-Bruins NHL season opener. Anytime Alexander Ovechkin is on the tube, it's mandatory to watch at least some of the game.
Not so fast. I flipped over to Versus and instead of the game found myself staring at the image to the right, courtesy of DirecTV:
My first reaction was the obligatory "what the fuck?" and then realized I hadn't watched Versus since the Stanley Cup finals in June. Apparently while I was out to lunch over the summer, Versus and DirecTV had dropped the gloves and the testicle-less NHL was acting like a ref standing there and watching a fight but doing nothing about it. Click here to see the league's tepid response to fans.
As a result, 18 million subscribers to the nation's largest satellite TV provider are paying their bills but not getting Versus' coverage of the NHL. Three weeks ago, by contrast, the NFL opened its season with a great Pittsburgh-Tennessee matchup on NBC for all the country to see. For free.
The more salient angle to the story, I believe, isn't the current dispute but the question of what the hell is the NHL doing airing its games on a rinky-dink cable channel such as Versus? Until recently, it was better known as the Outdoor Life Network and is still loaded with the kind of hunting programs that make a convincing case that animals could be outfitted with guns.
There was a time when the NHL was on channels people actually watched. But the league un-brilliantly bolted from ESPN in 2005 when ESPN refused to pay the kind of money that Versus was offering. The NHL may have gotten some much-needed cash; they also saw their already miserable TV exposure take a tumble.
All this makes me wonder how NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman keeps his job. Think about it. The NHL isn't perfect (too much fighting, season is too long, ticket prices are too high, etc.), but it has one hell of an exciting product that no one seemingly can figure out how to sell. NBC doesn't even pay to air NHL games -- it splits ad revenue with the league -- and still the network didn't air games three and four of last year's Stanely Cup final. Bettman, by the way, was the guy who wanted to put teams in southern states to secure better TV contracts.
Guess that hasn't worked too well, eh?
I actually think the solution here is easy:
No. 1: Put hockey teams in places where people play hockey (duh!).
No. 2: Make the game more appealing to more people by reducing fighting, shortening the season and lowering ticket prices. I'm sorry, but two months of playoffs is just ridiculous.
No. 3: Beg the big networks to take back the NHL at a reduced price and have them market the hell out of your skill players.
The sad thing here is that Bettman should know all this. He came from the NBA at a time when the NBA was sky-high owing to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Co. And the NBA isn't even that exciting -- unless you like watching free throws and timeouts.