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How Home Theater Can Save The NHL After Its Ugly Lockout Print E-mail
Thursday, 03 February 2005

As you may or may not be aware the supposed “fourth sport” of the big four pro sports leagues, the National Hockey League, has been involved in an ugly lockout since mid-September. The basic plot is that the owners in 1994, when in another labor struggle with the NHLPA player union, gave in to union demands resulting in a reported loss of $250,000,000 over 10 years. The NHLPA claims the numbers which were compiled with league approval by Arthur Levitt, the former head of the SEC under President Clinton, are bogus. What isn’t debatable is the fact that in the past five years goal scoring is down in the NHL by over 20 percent. What also isn’t debatable is the fact that with the drop in goal scoring has come a drop in television ratings that puts the once mighty NHL in the same league as Arena Football and is close to losing ratings battles with the cheap-to-produce “sport” of poker.

NHL hockey has been a personal passion of mine for as long as I can remember having grown up with the Broad Street Bully Philadelphia Flyers teams of the 1970’s - but not everyone in America has grown up on NHL hockey. Recent expansion of the league to more sun-belt markets like Nashville, Columbus, Tampa Bay and Miami has been a questionable move by the NHL brass. As soon as the lockout ends and all sources point towards it ending in a new collective bargaining agreement by the end of today or before the Super Bowl, the need for new fans to learn to love the game is more pressing than ever. The $2,100,000,000 business of the NHL will be smaller and millions of fans may simply never come back.

New hockey fans tend to struggle watching the game on a standard TV. The movement of the players is fast and the black puck is small and hard to see for a newbie fan. Traditional TVs with their 4:3 aspect ratios are more square in screen shape than rectangular. Even for experienced fans, the game seems somewhat narrow as compared to the live experience where the rink is much more long or rectangular. HDTV offers the new hockey fan (or content starved home theater junkie looking for his fix of something awesome on his high res set) something killer to watch. The screen shape makes it far easier for the casual fan to follow the game. The more vivid colors paired with the stark contrast between the bright white of the ice and the colorful player makes any HDTV set perform at its absolute best. The added resolution makes finding and tracking the movement of the puck significantly easier.

In October 2004, the Consumer Electronics Association announced that for the first time the AV industry sold over 1,000,000 DTVs (TVs capable of playing back HDTV content) in one month. These upwardly mobile, TV viewers are the saviors of the NHL if the league is man enough to reach them. ESPN HD is a full-time HDTV network found on most major cable and satellite systems however the amount of content on ESPN HD is limited to Sunday Night Football (which they do an excellent job producing) some baseball and some basketball games and the occasional original programing. Sportcenter is on in HD but the highlights and commercials tend to not be in HD. The NHL has the chance to offer ESPN, who still has a $60,000,000 contract with the NHL for the 2005 season some rich content for their audience.

The NHL lost its best client in ABC for a network TV partner. Their last deal was a whopping $600,000,000 package for ABC and ESPN coverage. ABC didn’t re-up their agreement opting to only take limited amounts of coverage on ESPN and ESPN2. That led NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to ink a revenue sharing, two year pact with Dick Ebersol at NBC sports. NBC is also a leader in HD content with especially good coverage of the Olympics. The NHL needs to show NBC how to make money with hockey on American TV and that is really going to be based around a successful HDTV broadcast. People in Boise aren’t going to all of a sudden become NHL fans unless there is a good reason. I can think of 1080(i) ways to lure them in.

The NHL’s labor problems are likely to be over soon despite the outrageously ugly negotiations that have brought out the worst in the business of sports. When the dust settles and the new season rolls, the NHL needs to partner with every HDTV network they can do a deal with as well as exploring creating their own subscription channel for HD content. HD isn’t just the killer application for home theater, it is the solution to the NHL’s problem of how to lure new, non-traditional fans to their exciting game.

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