NHL-Stanley Cup "Hunger Games" a ratings smash

Reuters

Wed, 18 Apr 20:21:00 2012

With the Stanley Cup playoffs looking more and more like a scene from "The Hunger Games", the National Hockey League (NHL) finds itself walking a tightrope, balancing soaring television ratings against player safety.

A particularly nasty opening round has left some hockey fans cringing but far more have been mesmerized by the early action underscored by plenty of fights and vicious hits.

Indications are the NHL has a smash-hit on its hands.

Three playoff games on NBC last weekend averaged a 50 percent increase compared to last year's coverage while Canada's all-sports network TSN reported a 56 percent jump in year-over-year veiwership.

The intra-state showdown between bitter rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia has grabbed the most attention with Sunday's Game Three posting the best ratings for any NHL playoff game, excluding the Stanley Cup final, in a decade.

A number of factors, from spicy matchups to large or hockey-mad markets, could be contributing to the higher ratings. But it is the violent, ill-tempered play that once again has the NHL in the spotlight and on the defensive.

For two years, the NHL has labored to clean up its image and tone down the violence that nearly sparked a sponsors revolt last season.

The league has gradually introduced tougher rules and sanctions and promised to stay the course during the playoffs but was slow to rein in the escalating mayhem that has been a ratings winner but threatening to undo many of the gains made in the area of player safety.

"It's critical that they (NHL) strike a balance between what fans may want, which is a combination of high-energy quality of play and serious hitting, but fits within the boundaries of the game," David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, told Reuters. "They have to manage it very delicately against their business interests, medical interests and corporate America.

"The violence might drive TV ratings but it is also the fallout from the fighting that might compromise their business relationship."

PLAYER SAFETY

Until the playoffs began concussions and player safety had been at the top of the NHL's agenda.

Following a tragic off-season that saw three players, who earned their paychecks as enforcers, die under disturbing circumstances and a parade of marquee names such as Penguins captain Sidney Crosby sidelined for extended periods with concussions, the league moved to crack down on illegal hits.

But the playoffs have seen the game slip back into what traditionalists like to call "old-time" hockey, with rugged, physical play descending into a steady stream of ugly elbows and injured players.

Officiating is more relaxed in the playoffs and there have been quite a few players willing to test the boundaries since Nashville defenseman Shea Weber escaped with a minor fine after slamming the face of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg into the glass.

As criticism mounts, NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has taken a harder line, slapping Pittsburgh's Arron Asham with a four-game suspension and Chicago's Adam Shaw and the New York Rangers' Carl Hagelin with three-game bans.

The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, which the Flyers lead 3-0, has been particularly nasty, with Game Three ending with 158 minutes in penalties and several players facing suspensions.

The underlying message has been that teams have lost faith in the league's ability to enforce the rules and will dispense justice themselves on ice.

"If I'm the NHL, I have to be vigilant about having a consistent set of rules not for just what happens during the regular season but how you deal with players in the post-season," said Carter.

"If you don't have that consistency it doesn't help you with sponsors, with fans and certainly doesn't help you with the media."

With disturbing scenes like Chicago's Marian Hossa being wheeled off the ice on a stretcher Tuesday following a vicious hit in Game Three of their series with Phoenix, more suspensions are likely to follow as the league tries to regain control.

But NHL officials will be no less aware that it is the physical element that has largely put the playoffs on the radar of American sports fans.

"Television ratings are up but you just have to be real careful, you want to draw fans in with a style of play that is exciting but does not cross that line," Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, told Reuters.

"This is their (NHL) version of a car crash and there are enough people out there who will start paying attention to a sport because of that physicality.

"But if the bulk of coverage after a game is how many players are getting knocked out, that is going to have a long term negative impact."

 

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