Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fighting in the National Hockey League, it’s good for business

Last week at annual IMG World Congress of Sports held in New York, one of the issues debated was an extensive look at how certain sports are doing currently in the marketplace and how other sports may fair in the future. One so-called major sport was conspicuous by its absence – there was little if any discussion related to the current or future impact the National Hockey League might have on the sports industry. To those who follow sports as a business (with the exception of those based in Canada, where SBN is located) the NHL has become nothing more than a footnote. The last few days serve to further illustrate for every step the NHL takes forward, it ends up taking ten steps backwards. Clearly the National Hockey League remains a train wreck waiting to happen.

It’s always nice to start with the good news and yes there was some good news from the NHL over the past few days. Monday, the league announced special pricing for the NHL’s Center Ice online live streaming of NHL games on the Internet. The NHL took its time before finally launching its live streaming of games on the Internet, moving forward earlier this month. Regardless of how long the NHL took before finally offering their product on the Internet to displaced hockey fans everywhere, the league’s announcement Monday for the remainder of the regular season, plus select games from the Stanley Cup Quarterfinal and Semifinal Rounds (all games subject to local blackout), subscribers in the U.S. and Canada are able to watch up to 40 games per week through Center Ice Online on NHL.com. The one-time fee in the U.S. is now $49 and in Canada it is $43.

Monday, the league also announced a six-year $600 million extension to their over-the-air Canadian television agreement with the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

"Hockey is part of the Canadian fabric and we're proud and pleased to continue what is the longest-standing sports rights partnership in the world; one that dates back to the very beginning of the CBC," said Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president, CBC Television. "This is the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in our partnership. We'll be offering Canadians more hockey, via more platforms, than ever before."

"CBC's Hockey Night in Canada has played an important role in building the passion that Canadians of all ages have for our game," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "The NHL is thrilled to continue our longstanding partnership with this great Canadian institution and build on a tradition that has become a staple for millions of Canadians from the time the first puck is dropped in October through the presentation of the Stanley Cup eight months later."

This is where the good news comes to a complete and stunning stop and the worst possible news, one of the biggest single indecencies in sports broadcasting history likely will continue unabated for the next six to seven years – Don Cherry, the bombastic Hockey Night in Canada personality, a living version of the Simpson’s Crusty the Clown, and his partner Ron MacLean (a great deal like the Simpson’s Sideshow Bob) are set to embarrass and humiliate hockey with their juvenile ‘repertoire’ called Coaches Corner.
Held between the first and second period during Saturday night’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, the cartoon characters took a predictable route. This past Saturday, Crusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob reached, for them, a new low in broadcasting history, and that says a great deal about how bad their performance was Saturday night. Click here to watch the video stream evidence of what took place.

As is often the case with Cherry and MacLean, the Laurel and Hardy of sports broadcasting saved their worst for last. As has been well documented in the pages of SportsBusinessNews.com and similar publications both in Canada and in the United States, a debate has raged over the last week relating to whether or not fighting should be permitted in hockey. The catalyst for the debate focused on comments NHL senior vice-president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell made to the Canadian Press late last week after Todd Fedoruk of the Philadelphia Flyers became the latest player injured in a fight. Fedoruk was knocked out by New York Rangers tough guy Colton Orr and was taken from the ice on a stretcher.

"There are arguments both ways but the bottom line is the question has to be asked," Campbell told the Canadian Press.

"I think it's incumbent on the competition committee and the general managers to ask the question: Where does fighting stand in the game of hockey?" Campbell said.

"I think it's time to ask the question regardless of what's happened this year. Things change. . . . Fighting has been around as long as anything. I think it had a place and a reason for being there and the critics will say the finesse players get run and slashing will go up [without fighting]. I think we have to ask whether there are other aspects that can control that."

"It's one thing to take fighting out but I think you can discuss where it stands in the game," Campbell said. "We've looked at a lot of different aspects in the game. No one thought we'd take out the red line. But anything that causes injuries, we should look at just like we look at touch or no-touch icing every year."

This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time fighting and its place in hockey will be debated, but at end of the day if Cherry and MacLean are allowed to offer their arcane views, hockey is really in trouble.

The classic line “I went to a fight and saw a hockey game break out” was an unfair mocking of hockey for many years and has been part of the belief system held by many who don’t understand the game. For two men (Cherry and MacLean) who believe they created hockey or are at least self proclaimed guardians of the game (imagine Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and other so called luminaries protecting baseball) began their full frontal assault on the public decency early in Saturday night’s telecast.

Colin Campbell who had the misfortunate to agree to appear on HNIC’s pregame show was taunted during the 15 minutes of hell MacLean put Campbell through. MacLean refused to let up on his barrage of questions relating to the suggestions Campbell had made earlier in the week about looking at fighting’s place in the NHL. MacLean who’ll never win a Pulitzer or any other award for being a decent journalist didn’t ask Campbell any real questions Saturday night but instead chose to berate Campbell for the comments he made.

But the “piece de resistance” took place towards the end of Cherry’s coaches’ corner tirade Saturday night. In what can only be called what it is, an unacceptable homophobic rebroadcast of something the mind of Archie Bunker, Ralph Kramden or some other individual with similar feelings towards diversity was offered as Cherry’s answer to the debate.

The segment which first aired on April 18, 1991 (its amazing a public broadcaster didn’t realize how stupid it is to have archived what was never amusing and is a sad commentary on diversity in 2007) features Cherry offering a parody of a Southern California resident (circa 1991) complete with a Cherry wearing gaudy clothes, a fedora and an earning in his left ear. Cherry is also wearing “Elton John like sunglasses” and offers his mocking mindless, ridiculous comments in a high-pitched made up voice. There was no excuse to air the idiotic attempt at humor in 1991, but given how far we’ve come as a society it shows a complete lack of maturity on the part of the CBC to offer it a second airing 16 years later. Cherry’s comments not only mock fighting in hockey but takes it to an even lower point when he comments on the bandana then Los Angeles Kings goaltender Kelly Rudy wore at the time.

In 1991 it represented the worst type of journalism; in 2007 preposterous for those responsible for permitting Cherry to air this nonsensical segment. Cherry managed to turn an important debate where he might have had an opinion worth listening to, into a bad hair day for Crusty the Clown.

Over his career on television, Cherry has been described as "racially insensitive and nonsensical" and a "xenophobic clown."

Cherry has a strong dislike of the "European style" of hockey, and has often insulted French Canadian hockey players on his show, blaming them for bringing diving, high-sticking and the introduction of visors into the league, while taking the jobs of "good-old Canadian boys."

On the subject of visors, Cherry is particularly outspoken. In January, 2004, he said on-air: "Most of the guys that wear them are Europeans and French guys." This statement triggered an investigation by the federal Official Languages Commissioner, and protests by French-Canadians. CBC consequently imposed a seven-second delay on Hockey Night in Canada. He was somewhat vindicated when a study was published that showed the majority of visor users in the NHL were indeed French-Canadians and Europeans.

After questionable gestures on the part of Atlanta Thrashers' star winger Ilya Kovalchuk, Cherry fumed: "Someone should have broken it [Kovalchuk's arm], but they didn't."
During the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, working with the CBC moments before the Women’s gold medal game on the last Thursday night of the Games, Cherry weighed in when Russian Olympic officials made noise about withdrawing from the Games because of perceived bias when it came to drug testing. "I've been trying to tell you people for so long about the Russians, what kind of people they are, and you just love them in Canada with your multiculturalism," he suggested. "They're quitters and evidently they take a lot of drugs, too."

In 2003 Cherry made controversial comments on his CBC segment in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the American radio program The Jim Rome Show the following week, he lashed out at CBC management for being anti-American.

In October, 2004, the CBC program The Greatest Canadian revealed that its 'top ten' viewer-selected great Canadians included Cherry. He joined such greats as John A. Macdonald, Frederick Banting, Terry Fox, Tommy Douglas, and Wayne Gretzky. Cherry himself remarked that he was inclined to vote for Macdonald, who during his lifetime also resided in Kingston. Don Cherry finished seventh in the final tally.

While Don Cherry’s opinions relating to how the NHL conducts its affairs have long become irrelevant, the same can’t be said for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his views on the relevance of violence and its place in the NHL.

"My view on fighting hasn't changed," the NHL commissioner offered at the tail end of the Monday’s CBC announcement. "We've never taken active steps or considered eliminating fighting from the game. I've always taken the view that it's a part of the game and it rises and lowers based on what the game dictates."

"The discussion that we've been having is about player safety and injuries," said Bettman. "We've had a number of injuries resulting from fighting recently.

"The question is whether or not that's an aberration or whether or not it's something we need to be concerned about."

Bettman may believe change is inevitable in the evolution of a professional sports league, but taking fighting out of hockey isn’t a direction he sees the NHL heading in.

"I think it's premature for anybody to reach any conclusions," Bettman said. "I think the first (thing) is for us to decide whether or not it's an issue, whether or not there needs to be an adjustment. Because there may not be.

"I think people are running off a little too fast on this topic. I know it's an emotional one for a lot of people and it gets a lot of attention, but to have a discussion about whether or not this is an issue is a long way from saying, `Here are the 10 things we need to do.' "

The NHL remains a gate driven product. A sports league that needs as much revenue as they can possibly generate from ticket sales and the need to have their ticket inventory sold every night. Just compare the NHL’s huge television rights fees agreement announced Monday. When the NHL’s Canadian cable agreement is announced in the coming weeks (five-years $50 million annually), the NHL’s combined annual television revenues will have reached an uninspiring $220 million annually. That’s a total that must be shared by all 30 NHL franchises. That’s just north of $7 million per team each year.

Keeping fighting in hockey, it’s here to stay. There are more right reasons than wrong reasons, but at the end of the day the most important reason – it generates interest, sells tickets and adds to the NHL’s financial well being, and that is the bottom line.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN.com, CBC.ca and The Toronto Star

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