TV SportsN.H.L. Void Has Networks Scrambling
By Michelin Maynard, The New York Times
- Dec. 9, 2012
DETROIT — Usually at this time of year, hockey fans would plant themselves in front of their televisions and watch players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Marian Hossa command the ice.
Instead, they have been reminded that Ken Dryden was tall, Guy Lafleur had a side part, and the boards in arenas once bore only team logos.
For more than two months, as the lockout dragged on, sports channels that usually show N.H.L. games have had to scramble to fill their lineups. Sports network officials say audiences are a fraction of what they would typically expect, although die-hard fans are sticking around for the substitutes.
“It’s frustrating,” said Greg Hammaren, the senior vice president and general manager of FoxSports Detroit, the television home of the Red Wings.
In Michigan, the average Red Wings game is viewed in more than 100,000 households. Hammaren said about 65,000 of them are in the metropolitan Detroit area, which has earned the nickname Hockeytown.
To fill the vacancies left by canceled games, FoxSports Detroit has shifted telecasts of the Pistons from its high-definition channel to the main FoxSports channel.
It is also planning to run more college hockey games, and it is talking with the Red Wings about showing games played by the Grand Rapids Griffins, the American Hockey League team owned by the N.H.L. club.
“People want live hockey again,” Hammaren said.
FoxSports is leaning on its video library of past Red Wings games and those played by the Detroit Tigers. During the summer, Tigers telecasts are the highest-rated in Major League Baseball, according to FoxSports Detroit, often drawing the most viewers of any program on local TV. Hammaren said the video archive offered endless possibilities.
“If you’re an anti-Yankees fan, an anti-Red Sox fan, we can show those,” he said, referring to games in which the Tigers beat them. Of Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ pitching ace, Hammaren said, “If you want to see all the Verlander games, I can program a month of those.”
Another market that is showing classic games is Chicago. Broadcasts of previous Blackhawks games have generated e-mails from some grateful fans, said Phil Bedella, the vice president and general manager of Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
“A lot of people send us messages saying: ‘Thank you. I’ve been telling my kids what Bobby Hull was like, what Stan Mikita was like, and now they can see them,’ ” Bedella said.
But, he added, “I’d like to be doing classic games as well as Blackhawks games.”
The situation is especially frustrating because the hockey audience swelled the last two years, since the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup.
Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which reaches Iowa, southern Wisconsin, most of Indiana and nearly all of Illinois, brings in 110,000 households in Chicago for each game and 135,000 over all, according to the network’s statistics.
The network plans to show the Hockey City Classic, a four-team college tournament in February at Soldier Field. But in Chicago, college hockey cannot compete with the Blackhawks, who have official bars across the city, a lively social media effort and extensive fan-related events.
“We just really want them back,” Bedella said, adding that hockey to Blackhawks fans was like a religion.
He has a multitude of options in the future, however, because the network carries the Bulls, the White Sox and the Cubs as well as the Blackhawks. One plan, should the N.H.L. cancel the season, is to run “a more robust spring training schedule,” he said.
Currently, Comcast SportsNet Chicago plans to show five White Sox preseason games and three Cub games, but those numbers could easily be increased.
So far, Bedella said, the Blackhawks’ major advertisers have kept with the amended schedule, and he expects they will return when play resumes, whether this winter or next fall.
But he lost advertisers who place one-time spots throughout the season, according to their needs. He cannot blame them for leaving.
“It’s the holidays, and the ads have to run,” Bedella said.
The audience numbers in Detroit and Chicago pale in comparison with those in Canada, where Saturday night broadcasts are a national tradition.
“Hockey Night in Canada” typically attracts two million viewers for telecasts in eastern Canada and a million for games in western Canada, said Chuck Thompson, a spokesman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Like American stations, the CBC has shown vintage telecasts. Until last weekend, it ran a contest called Your Pick, in which fans voted for the classic games they wanted to view.
But instead of a Saturday night game, the network showed the animated movie “Up,” which kicked off the CBC’s holiday programming.
Thompson said nonhockey programming would be shown until it was clear whether a settlement would be reached. The CBC has contingency plans for 2013, and was pleased with the Your Pick contest, which attracted about 250,000 to 300,000 viewers a game. “It was modest, but it was where we expected them to come in,” Thompson said. (“Up” drew nearly 600,000 viewers.)
If only some of those viewers would drop into the Souper Bowl in Pittsburgh. The bar sits opposite Consol Energy Center, the home of the Penguins. Its motto is “The Place to Be for Happy Hour and Pens Games,” and its mascot is a penguin chugging a beer.
“We’re struggling quite a bit,” said Jess Satavy, a bar manager.
Before a game, 500 people would pack the two-story bar, making it tough to get a seat, and others stuck around to watch broadcasts. The bar would be open until 2 a.m. for postgame stragglers.
Now, unless there is an event across the street, “we close up when the happy hour crowd leaves,” Satavy said. The doors are usually shut by 9 p.m. The bar counts on revenue from hockey season to carry it through the summer, meaning 2013 will be tough unless games return. Satavy said she was not expecting a hockey season.
“We’ve gotten our hopes up so many times that at this point, we’re pessimistic,” Satavy said. “We don’t want to be disappointed again.”http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/sports/hockey/tv-networks-scramble-to-fill-nhl-void.html?ref=media&_r=0