Putting the Olympics to rest
With word coming out that the NHL will reevaluate (re: probably not bother with) the league’s participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics, it looks like this grand ol’ experiment may finally be coming to a close. The final verdict? On the ice, NHL participation in the Olympics was a resounding success filled with swift skating, passionate hitting, beautiful passes, and clutch plays. What other tournament could motivate Teemu Selanne to skate at full speed while trying to knock future-teammate Chris Pronger off the puck? Where else could a team from Belarus destroy a goalie’s confidence and career with a single shot? How else could an entire country live (Canada 2002) and die (Canada 1998) in a two-week span?
The players took the tournament nearly as seriously as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, meaning that every save, every hit, and every goal was an absolute battle. For anyone who took the time to watch, almost every game was a beauty to watch.
That’s on the ice. Off the ice? It’s hard to actually put a metric to any sort of tangible success, but the verdict is almost unanimously considered a big bust — or at the very least, pretty darn disappointing.
Sparked by the media frenzy created by the NBA’s Dream Team, the 1998 Nagano Olympics were to be a test run for the 2002 Salt Lake City games. In Nagano, the hockey may have been fantastic, but the TV ratings weren’t — with Canada knocked out by the Czechs and Team USA too busy having a frat party in the Olympic Village, only die-hard hockey fans were intrigued by how far Dominik Hasek could take the emerging Czech team. However, 2002 set the stage up with plenty of drama: USA vs. Canada, both teams looking for redemption in front of one of the largest combined audiences for hockey in North America.
For one afternoon, hockey was king in the US. Then it came and went, the NHL resumed business as usual, and rather than experiencing a bump in ratings, the NHL was its normal self in the television landscape. In other words, not very good. Sure, more people may have known who Chris Chelios and Mario Lemieux were, but they weren’t tuning into regular season or the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And that’s the crux of this problem. With 2010 in Vancouver, the NHL will now have had two chances to try to use Olympics on North American soil as the ultimate advertisement for the game. Will HD broadcasts and a new media landscape change things? Probably not; in fact, with the increasing fragmentation of communication and attention spans, you’ll probably get more of the same: decent ratings if it’s a US-Canada final, then no real significant bump.
By 2010, other measurements may determine how valuable this experiment is for the NHL. Web traffic, online advertisers, video streams, all of that will have more of a prominent revenue stake than before. But the bottom line is that while this tournament produces some of the best hockey you’ll ever see, it doesn’t really help out the NHL’s business plan.
In fact, some may argue that it actually hurts some markets. After all, after seeing the best hockey in the world, who will want to tune in to a no-offense, go-nowhere team wasting away at the bottom of the standings? A great songwriter once wrote, “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor,” and that’s how a number of casual fans could feel depending on how the team in their marketplace is doing.
Ultimately, 2014 will be based on the success of 2010. If the NHL sees a resurgence in popularity similar to the infamous 1994 Sports Illustrated cover that proclaimed “Why the NHL’s hot and the NBA’s not,” then it might make sense to really have a showcase that can be a magnet for casual viewers. The other thing to consider is that while the situation may not be a moneymaker for the North American market (Canada being maxed out, America being somewhat apathetic), all sports leagues are seeing significant growth in overseas revenue thanks to international satellite broadcasts and online communication. If the league can make a significant increase in its international revenue, especially from hotbeds like Sweden and the Czech Republic, it might be worth the effort to have a cross-timezone stoppage.
In a perfect world, the decision would be based solely on the on-ice product, meaning that tournament participation would continue. When judged by the almighty dollar, the path is uncertain. The alternative is to have the Olympics be a glorified version of the World Junior Championship — which would still produce some dynamite hockey — while the NHLers continue to play in the on-again-off-again World Cup tournament.
However you slice it, though, a World Cup tournament in September just doesn’t hold the same mystique as playing on the biggest sports stage in the world. Still, you have to start tradition somewhere, and perhaps such a tournament really is the only logistical way to get a happy medium for everyone.
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