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Who cares about the Cup?

Posted: Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Outside of Canada and Tampa Bay, is anyone talking about the Stanley Cup final?

The television audience in the United States is minuscule. Coverage of the Calgary-Tampa Bay series in many newspapers has shrunken to a brief. It's a championship without a buzz.

On the surface, the NHL seems to be drifting from unpopularity to irrelevance, raising the question of whether it still deserves to be called a major league in this country.

Yet the fortunes and prospects for the league are not as bleak as they appear. There are big bucks in those pucks if the NHL makes a few smart moves and avoids a really dumb one.

Take the dumb one first: A lockout or strike that knocks out next season.

''That could be the death knell of the NHL,'' says Nye Lavalle, president of the Sports Marketing Group. ''The people who are paying $75 or $100 a ticket to see hockey are going to get fed up. They have many other choices for their time and money.''

Sponsors and advertisers, who have to budget and set up promotional plans in advance, already are worried about a prolonged labor dispute after the current contract between the NHL and the players union ends Sept. 15.

''It's hurtful for any sport,'' Lavalle said. ''It takes a long time, as we've seen from baseball, to come back from a lockout or strike. It would be much, much harder for the NHL to survive.''

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned again recently that owners are determined to reach a radically different labor agreement no matter how long it takes. The players union, he said, ought not to test that resolve.

''If this is a test to see if the owners really mean it, it's a shame to have to go through all the hardship that will entail to prove the point,'' Bettman said.

A recent economic study prepared for the league, challenged by the players but repeatedly cited by Bettman, concluded that players get 76 percent of all league revenues far more than the percentage for the other major team sports.

Changing that pay structure and going to an NFL-style revenue-sharing plan, which promotes parity and gives more teams a chance to win championships, is the NHL's top priority.

Even if the league succeeds in that, it still has a long way to go to build up its popularity.

''No. 1, the NHL has to reduce ticket prices to get people into the stands,'' Lavalle said. ''Once they get into the stands, they're hooked.''

The NHL also has to find ways to promote the personalities of players, particularly among young fans and women.

''Women love hockey,'' Lavalle said. ''I've talked to people in the front offices of a lot of sports and nobody understands who their fans are. Young men in the 18-to-34-year-old group and women should be the people the NHL targets.''

The league also should go to a European division, Lavalle said, to extend its reach and capitalize on the popularity of European players.

The influx of Europeans has raised the quality of play but made it more difficult for American fans to identify with them. More stable rosters and better promotion of players can change that.

One of the greatest challenges the NHL faces is making itself into a TV-friendly sport. The league already is packing arenas, averaging nearly 17,000 fans per game over the past three years, even with soaring ticket prices.

But traditional TV broadcasts haven't captured the speed and sounds of the game. In some movies, like last year's ''Miracle'' about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the excitement of the sport comes through. On television, the game has seemed lost as cameras try to track a small puck on a large sheet of ice and miss the quick movements of players.

That's changing with the advent of sharper, more lifelike, high-definition TV broadcasts.

''It's the biggest innovation in televising hockey in the last 50 years,'' NHL senior vice president Doug Perlman said recently. ''It takes watching hockey to the next level.''

Though there are only about 10 million HDTV sets in use in the United States and fewer than a million in Canada, nearly one-quarter of the NHL's games this year were shown in high-definition this season.

''We're already seeing a huge impact on hockey,'' Perlman said.

The NHL is switching networks next season assuming there is a next season. NBC is back on the ice after 29 years, replacing ABC.

It's a modest but significant commitment by NBC over the next two years: seven regular-season games beginning in January and six playoff games in regular Saturday afternoon time slots. The network also will televise Games 3-7 of the Stanley Cup finals in prime time.

ESPN and the NHL also agreed to a deal to keep the league on ESPN2 next season, with options for the cable network to extend the deal for two more seasons.

All the pieces are in place for a comeback by the NHL. If the networks can figure out how to get the action in the arena to translate to the tube, and if the NHL can avoid one dumb move while making a few smart ones, the buzz just might come back to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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