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Is Anyone Watching? Though its hard-core fans keep turning out, the NHL has been stung by plummeting TV ratings and the perception that it is struggling

The Stanley Cup has been used as an infant's bathtub, gone for
dips in backyard pools, toured strip clubs and performed all
manner of stupid trophy tricks, but its summertime zenith might
have come on June 15, 1994, when it made it to David Letterman's
desk. Those were the days when The Late Show was the cutting
edge of cool, and for all the storied names associated with the
Cup--Howe, the Rocket, Orr, Gretzky--suddenly none seemed more
important than Letterman's to a league eager to ditch its
mom-and-pop image. Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter
of the New York Rangers lugged the gleaming 35-pound chalice
into the studio. The audience chanted, "Let's go, Range-uhs."
While it was surely a New York moment, Hip Nation, the world
inhabited by the demographically correct, also got it.

The NHL was hot, the NBA was not--at least that was what SI said
on its June 20, 1994, cover as a confluence of events swept
hockey to higher ground. Not only had a riveting postseason
concluded with the Curse of the Rangers being lifted after 54
years, but Michael Jordan was also flailing at curveballs in the
minor leagues, and the major leagues were about to embark on a
devastating strike. Hockey, the most relentlessly physical of
sports, had bumped into something intangible--buzz.

Entering this year's Stanley Cup finals between the Detroit Red
Wings and the Washington Capitals, the only buzz was about
Michael, McGwire and Kerry Wood. Around hockey, things were so
quiet you could hear the TV ratings drop. According to a poll
conducted for SI by Yankelovich Partners, the NHL has settled in
at No. 6 among pro sports in fan interest, behind auto racing
and golf. (The poll, taken on June 3 and 4, during the NHL
conference finals, sampled 577 sports fans nationwide and is
accurate to plus or minus 4.1%, or about the success rate of the
Tampa Bay Lightning's power play.) The momentum of '94, slowed
by a lockout four months later and further undermined by sweeps
in the past three Stanley Cup finals, has dissipated, leaving
the NHL with as many perceived problems as real ones.

In some ways the NHL has never been in better shape. A U.S.
network television contract is in place after a gap of almost
two decades; there is labor peace through 2004; arenas are
filled to an impressive 90.6% of capacity despite the
highest-priced tickets among the major sports; the playoff
tournament has reemphasized speed and skill; and four expansion
franchises will be added in the next three years, putting the
league in 24 U.S. cities, up from 14 in just a decade.

On the other hand, national TV contracts with Canadian and U.S.
networks pay teams a mere $3.4 million, one sixth as much as the
29 NBA clubs will get next season; team executives complain that
the labor agreement hasn't checked salaries of young players or
of players on the bottom third of rosters; roughly 13 franchises
are losing money in a league that will finish $100 million in
the red for 1997-98; there were empty seats during the playoffs
in hockey's mecca, Montreal, and in the new MCI Center in
apathetic Washington; there is no high-profile team with
compelling stars--like the Bulls, the Braves, the Packers--to
connect the dots between disparate cities and promote greater
nationwide interest in the league; and the tournament, despite
up-tempo hockey, hasn't been "very sexy," to use Florida
Panthers president Bill Torrey's expression. "The way [the
media] have been so negative," Torrey said during the semifinals
between Washington and the Buffalo Sabres, "it's seemed like
Podunk City versus Podunk City."

"There is an ebb and flow to sports, and you have to deal with
cycles," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told SI last Friday about
the perception that hockey is on the wane. "That's why there are
no shortcuts. There are no Band-Aids. You must build a
foundation. If you were looking for a quick hit [in 1994] and
were able to say, 'Look at this, they've conquered the world'
...that's not what it's all about. Try conquering the world. If
you're not doing it on a good foundation, your world will
crumble quickly."

The snapshots that reveal the most about the state of the NHL
are of the two most powerful men in their respective
fields--Bill Clinton (the Free World) and Scotty Bowman (NHL
coaching). President Clinton, who had never attended an NHL
match until Game 2 of the Capitals-Sabres series, gave the
league his seal of approval when he told ESPN, "It's much more
exciting in person." The happy talk faded six days later when
Bowman lurched into a press conference after Detroit's Game 4
win over the Dallas Stars. He assailed the pucks used in games
televised by Fox, saying the disks embedded with microchips
(which produce a blue glow on the TV screen and blue or red
streaks, depending on the speed of the puck) bounced too much
because they can't be frozen, as regulation pucks are. In truth,
FoxTrax, though sometimes headache-inducing, was developed in an
honest effort to respond to what the SI poll identified as the
game's biggest problem: 38% of sports fans have difficulty
following the traditional puck on TV.

That may help explain why the NHL is being afforded some
unnerving privacy. Simply put, the TV ratings stink. In 1994,
Bettman told SI he would be disappointed in five years if ESPN
were still pulling in a meager 1.4 rating during the playoffs
(each ESPN rating point represents 760,000 households). This
year ESPN, which provides first-rate coverage, had a 1.0 average
for its playoff games through the conference finals, down 23%
from the 1.3 average at the same point last year. Fox's ratings,
off 27% during the regular season, have shrunk 22% in the
postseason, from 2.3 in the '97 playoffs to 1.8 this year (each
rating point for Fox represents 980,000 households). It should
be noted that only one team from the nation's three biggest
markets made the playoffs this year, and that team, the Los
Angeles Kings, lasted only one round. Even in a land that prides
itself on being able to spot a puck on TV, CBC's Hockey Night in
Canada ratings dropped 10% in the first round and 8% in the
second despite the presence of three Canadian teams; CBC
estimated that the numbers in the conference finals were about
20% lower.

The lower ratings could have a corresponding effect on league
revenues, with the Fox contract, which pays $31 million per
year, expiring after next season. If network television revenue
is cut dramatically or even dries up again, some teams that are
already losing money may be at risk of financial ruin, and those
marginal players who are earning large salaries could eventually
be replaced by youngsters making the league minimum, as occurs
in major league baseball and the NBA. Bettman insists the TV
numbers are not indicators of the league's popularity. "Our
television is a work in progress," he says. "We're still looking
to find our niche, but our niche is there." But if TV ratings
are not an index of popularity, what is?

True, there were some strange twists this season; the strangest
was the NHL's 17-day Olympics experiment in Nagano. The hiatus
delayed the playoffs for about a week, forcing the NHL finals to
go head-to-head with what may be Jordan's final exit. Now a
Detroit-Washington Game 7 would take hockey to June 23. Although
84% of those responding to the SI poll said the Olympics had no
effect on their playoff viewing, the league has been hammered by
the media for its interminable season. NHL participation in Salt
Lake City in 2002, when the anticipated break would be less than
10 days, is no longer a lock. "We disrupted our season at a time
when tickets sell best," says Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner
Howard Baldwin, whose team's attendance was flat after Nagano.

Too bad Nielsen doesn't track ratings in Prague. Czech-born
Dominik Hasek certified his reputation as the best goalie of the
1990s with a matchless Olympic performance and gave the NHL
exactly what it didn't need--another European star, one who
plays in the media hub of Buffalo. A Finn, Teemu Selanne of the
Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and a Slovak, Peter Bondra of Washington,
tied for the league scoring lead with 52 goals. Six of the top
10 scorers were European, though the prominence of imports
concerns neither hockey executives nor fans, 85% of whom told
SI's pollsters that it makes no difference to them. Even though
trendsetter Nike has cast its hockey lot with Detroit's Sergei
Fedorov, a Russian, and Toronto Maple Leafs star Mats Sundin, a
Swede, one sports marketer insists some companies are scared off
by imports. Says Bob Williams, president of the Burns Sports
Celebrity Service, a Chicago-based company that matches
advertisers with athletes looking for endorsements, "I think the
foreign cultures and the foreign language issue are definitely a
big concern for the advertisers. If you look at the hard
numbers, it's Gretzky, Gretzky, Gretzky."

Indeed, in the minds of Madison Avenue types, the NHL has been
all Gretzky almost from the moment he joined the league in 1979.
Although now 37 and on the final leg of his career, the Rangers
center is the only hockey player who, in a recent survey of
1,000 advertising executives, ranked among the top 50 athletes
in endorsement appeal. The NHL has been unable to develop
another crossover star, one with the proper mix of skills,
slickness and diplomacy.

"Stars sell," says Baldwin, who also produces movies in
Hollywood. "The national eye is on stars like Griffey or
McGwire. We need to open up our game, let our top players excel
like they used to."

With scoring having dropped over the past four years by more
than a goal--to 5.3 per game, the lowest in 42 years--the NHL
fell prey to coaches whose systems emphasized defense. This was
chess on a slippery 200-by-85-foot board. The NHL finally
confronted this flaw after the Olympic break by cracking down on
obstruction. Now Bettman is crusading for a return to the
wide-open 1980s, when a goals-against average of 3.00 was worthy
of All-Star consideration and not a ticket to the minors. The
word is out. Example: When Dallas defenseman Darryl Sydor went
to the penalty box for a piddling obstruction call during the
Stars-Edmonton Oilers series, he asked the official in the box
what was up. Sydor was told that Bettman was in the arena and
that the game was going to be called tighter than size-30 khakis
on an NHL scout.

"Offense is synonymous with entertainment," says Boston Bruins
president Harry Sinden, who is on the screening committee that,
according to NHL sources, will recommend to general managers the
following changes for 1998-99:

--A second referee, whose mere presence--like that of a traffic
cop at a busy intersection--should improve the flow of the game.

--Moving the nets two feet farther from the end boards, which
would give playmakers more space to create offense.

--Slightly shrinking the crease area, which would allow more
traffic in front of goalies, thus making it more difficult for
them to stop pucks.

--A still-to-be-determined formula that would discourage ties, a
reaction to the 165 regular-season games in 1997-98 that were
deadlocked after overtime.

Of course some things will never change, including the size of
the puck, America's poor eyesight and the predominance of white
players in a game that "[lacks] the hip-hop, inner-city appeal
that really drives the marketers to basketball and even football
and baseball," according to Bob Dorfman, sports analyst for
Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco, which publishes
Marketers' Professional Scouting Report.

But if you look beneath the skin, beyond Nielsens, high ticket
prices and a momentarily stalled league trying to regain its
momentum, hockey is still a player on the U.S. sports scene.
Minor league attendance is solid, especially in the East Coast
Hockey League. The ECHL, which 10 years ago began with five
franchises and a $25,000 entry fee, recently accepted $1.5
million from a Trenton, N.J., group to become its 28th franchise
and join the party with cities like Mobile, Ala., and
Tallahassee, Fla. The street- and roller-hockey revolution
continues--the Panthers' Street Cats program has grown from 300
participants to more than 8,000 in just three years--and EA
Sports says sales of its NHL '98 computer and video game are
better than in 1994, despite increased competition. NHL
licensing, at $800 million in 1993, hit $1.2 billion last year.
If the game keeps cementing its foundation, if those connected
dots form a bold picture, the league's teams could collectively
make money by the end of its current labor agreement and make
noise even sooner. If Jordan retires, if the NBA has protracted
labor trouble, the NHL could be looking at a power play, if not
Letterman, as early as next fall.

"This is such a tremendous game," says a sighing Sinden, who has
seen crises come and go in his 30 years in the NHL. "All of us
who screw it up are depending on the game to save us."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Goal in mind If Bettman has his way, the high-scoring games of the '80s will return--and higher ratings will follow. [Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Detroit Red Wings fan painted red and cheering]

COLOR CHART: JARED SCHNEIDMAN Squeezing Them In The NHL's average attendance has risen sharply since 1990-91. Here are the numbers for the regular season and the playoffs. ATTENDANCE [Chart not available--line graph showing average attendance at NHL playoff and regular-season games for 1990-91 through 1996-97]

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [Olympic hockey players in game]

COLOR PHOTO: FOX [NHL hockey players in game]

COLOR CHART: JARED SCHNEIDMAN Tuning Out The NHL's regular-season and playoff ratings on Fox and ESPN have dropped over the past two seasons. Here are the numbers. RATINGS [Chart not available--line graph showing television ratings for 1994-95 through 1997-98 seasons]

Just Asking

In a poll conducted for SI last week, Yankelovich Partners asked
sports fans various questions pertaining to the NHL. Here are
some of the responses.

Do you have trouble following the puck when watching hockey on
television, or isn't that the case?

Yes, trouble following the puck 38%
No, do not 59%
Not sure 3%

Many NHL stars were not born in North America. Does this make
you less interested in following the league, more interested, or
doesn't this make any difference?

Less interested 7%
More interested 3%
Doesn't make a difference 85%
Not sure 5%

Did the participation of NHL players in the Olympics (above)
give you a better impression of the NHL, a worse impression, or
did it not change your impression?

Better impression 21%
Worse impression 25%
No change in impression 53%
Not sure 1%

The NHL playoffs were delayed because some players were
participating in the Olympics. Did this delay make you more
interested in watching the NHL playoffs, less interested, or did
it not affect you one way or another?

More interested 3%
Less interested 7%
Did not affect either way 84%
Not sure 6%