Friday, June 8, 2007

NHL Misses Marketing/Ratings Marks Yet Again

by Dale Nixon

The Nielsen Ratings for the recently concluded NHL Stanley Cup finals, shown on NBC (aka the we-don't-have Seinfeld-or-Friends-anymore channel) and cable partner Versus were abysmal. The numbers normally reserved for a periodic table (SportsBusiness Daily reported Versus earned a 0.62 overnight Nielsen cable rating for Game One of the Senators-Ducks Stanley Cup Finals on Monday night) came as no surprise - given that the finalists were the Anaheim Ducks *(no longer Mighty) and the Ottawa Senators.

But what is perplexing is the way the National Hockey League continues to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to missed marketing opportunities.

According to Sports Illustrated hockey writer Michael Farber, here is what went down:

Al-Jazeera has no one at the Stanley Cup finals, its credential request having been turned down. Given the paucity of non-aligned (i.e. Southern California) newspapers from the States covering the final between the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators -- the Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, both Denver papers, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, New York Daily News and the Buffalo News have been spotted through three games -- you might have thought the NHL would have been happy to reach a, hmmm, really non-traditional hockey market, but, alas, that didn't happen. Why Al-Jazeera saw the news value in something that, say, the Detroit News apparently hasn't is for deeper thinkers than me.

Now, the fact that the NHL needs to expand the fanbase is obvious. The move from ESPN and ABC to Versus and NBC did inject life into a moribund post-season, if only for the fact that somehow Dapper Don Cherry cleared customs and made Coach's Corner appearances south of the border. But seemingly, it generated little interest in the actual Quest for the Grail, err, Lord Stanley's Cup.

Once a solid fourth in the United States sports rankings, recent years have seen upstarts such as NASCAR and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, along with the edge-of-the-seat exciting PGA and its whispering announcers, carve an ice sculpture out of pro hockey's eminent domain of column inches in newspapers, magazines and sports highlight shows.

Enter Al Jazeera, the television network headquarted in Qatar with several different channels, including a sports channel, and an Arabic-language magazine. Broadcast by satellite throughout the Middle East and in fact the rest of the world, Al Jazeera attained western notoriety by broadcasting videotaped messages from Osama Bin Laden, amongst others. Heady and controversial stuff to be sure, but maybe just the tonic the slushy-soft NHL marketing machine needs.

And what better place to expand hockey's boundaries than the ice-starved but oil-rich arid lands of the Persian Gulf?

As of 2007, the Arabic Al Jazeera main channel rivals the BBC in worldwide audiences with an estimated 40 to 50 million viewers. Al Jazeera English has an estimated reach of around 80 million households. A strong 45% of those viewers are males in the lucrative 15-39 market, precisely the target audience the league needs to reach.

NHL official broadcasting partner Versus, owned by North American cable monolith Comcast, claims to reach 72 million homes. But the fact is twice the number of homes in the United started are tuned in to Flip this House on HGTV (a reality show predictably focused on real estate) than the former Outdoor Network channel, which boasts a show entitled HOLY @#%*! amongst its non-hockey prime time lineup offerings. The partnership with NBC, which broadcast the final three games in the Ducks-Sens series, scraped the bottom of the barrel with the lowest hockey ratings in 12 years. MediaPost scoped the barren ice-encrusted lanscape:

The final game of the NHL Stanley Cup contest between the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators on NBC pulled in 2.88 million viewers, the lowest in 12 years.

Compared with Game 5 last year, last night's adult 18-49 viewers dropped 29% to a 1.2 rating from a 1.7 number. Game 4 posted similar numbers--a 1.1 rating of 18-49 viewers and 2.8 million total viewers. If that wasn't enough bad news for NBC and the NHL, the third game of the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday drew just 1.6 million total viewers, the lowest viewership for any finals game since the network began carrying hockey last year. It's not just NBC. The NHL's cable network, Versus, also witnessed a 20% drop in viewership for the first two games of the Stanley Cup versus last year.

While hockey gives NBC some fresh original programming for the otherwise rerun-happy network summer TV schedule, hockey put NBC into fifth place, behind Fox (3.6/11), ABC (2.5/7), CBS (2.1/6) and Univision (1.8/5). NBC was a 1.2/4. CW was next at a 0.7/2.

All the while Al Jazeera and seven potential channels of hockey-bereft viewers sat at home, waiting for a call to action from the NHL media office that never came. Imagine Stanley Cup finals coverage preempting the usual schedule of beheadings and Bin Laden missives. A two-handed slash with a hockey stick would be widely accepted by folks used to the two-handers with a sword sentence given to thieves.

Hockey could definitely thrive in the Middle East, where violence is both common and an accepted part of network viewing unlike the gunshy United States, in which hockey's pugilistic sidebars are often sited as a reason for the lack of mainstream. Overly complicated stick-and-ball sports rules cause both a cultural and language divide when exported; hockey, particularly with the nuking of two-line passes and offsides rules, is now much easier to follow.

Still the NHL continues to be shortsighted and deftly avoids both controversy and viewers. Give Al Jazeera a credential.

Better yet, give it full broadcasting rights.

Allah knows the commissioner will crave the expansion dollars.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Check - Kasparov v. Putin

Dating back to the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russian politics has always been a quagmire. Or minefield. More recently, a quagmire lined with nuclear-tipped mines, ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by hostile forces both external and internal.

After all, there are not many countries in which a significant political figure can end up poisoned, shot, beaten with a truncheon AND then drowned all in the same day.

So the emergence of 43-year old chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov as an opposition leader to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin presents a supreme threat to the dominance of the siloviki (political power elite) who control the country's financial might through the vast natural (read energy) resources and, more succinctly, to Kasparov's own health.

I can calculate the possibilities as a chess player and I have to be honest and say that our chances are not high. But I take this as a moral duty, and when you do something out of moral duty, then who cares?
Kasparov told The Times of London.
“So I am here, I am fighting and I try to defend our rights. I don’t feel that I have the right to be scared.”

Putin, at this point, controls all of the pawns. He consolidated the country's energy resources and his own power with an iron fist, with military dominance of eastern Europe having been replaced by control of the energy flow. Recently Russia's national energy power Gazprom unceremoniously bounced Royal Dutch Shell out of the enormous Sakhalin Island natural gas program at a huge financial loss. That might not seem significant on the surface (every world power has at least marched through Holland in the last 100 years), but Shell also happens to be the second-largest company in the world (measured in revenues) to Exxon/Mobil.

Scorecard: Putin 1, European Oil Multinationals 0.

Putin himself is well versed in the Russian political landscape, his grandfather is said to have served meals to both Rasputin and Lenin as a renowned chef while his father served in the NKVD during the reign of Stalin. Putin entered the KGB in 1976 and resigned in 1991. Putin learned enough from his escapades (including a lengthy posting in Germany) to institute his own brand of "sovereign democracy", in which the policy of the President should be supported by the popular majority in Russia itself and not be governed from outside of the country; an obvious shake of the head to substantial financial expatriate interests. Perhaps most substantially, Putin has inspired a sort of nationalistic fervor which has led to an estimated 81% approval rating.

Kasparov is following what might be described as a risky strategy, as de facto face of an opposition group called The Other Russia. Following a tried and true formula

"In a chess game, when your king is under attack, you have to defend," Kasparov told the Christian Science Monitor. "Beneath this illusion of stability there is boiling protest and growing economic disparity. The only way out is to have real, competitive, and free elections."

The current aim of the Other Russia seems to be hinged on getting other world leaders to denounce Putin and possibly exclude Putin's regime from attending economic summits. However, Kasparov was prevented from attending a planned protest at the European Union-Russia summit in Samara May 18. Less than a week later, Kasparov received a standing ovation at the European Parliament (EP) for comments he made about the regime.

"I have always said that Putin is a Russian problem and that we do not need outside assistance. But that does not mean we are happy to see Europe’s leaders, supposedly the defenders of democracy, giving aid and support to the authoritarian Putin government. We do not so much ask for your action as for your honesty. Stop providing Putin with democratic credentials he has in no way earned. Stop receiving him and his allies as democratic equals. Stand up to authoritarianism instead of quietly endorsing it," Kasparov said.

"Nobody denies the necessity of doing business with Russia. The EU also does business with China, for example. But you do not provide the Chinese leadership with the trappings of democratic comradeship as you do with Putin. Every summit, every collegial meeting, is played on state-controlled Russian television as a way of discrediting the pro-democracy opposition of which I am a member. They say, “see, Putin is welcomed and treated as an equal by Europe’s leaders. He is a democrat too.”"

The gambit by Kasparov to push towards representative democracy is daring and no less of a master stroke than any of his famous catalog of chess maneuvers. And the vast army of pawns is undoubtedly controlled by Putin. But even U.S. Senator (and Presidential candidate) John McCain has acknowledged the root of Kasparov's message.

"Russia is probably the greatest disappointment in recent years. It has turned into a KGB oligarchy. [President Vladimir] Putin wants to restore the days of the old Russian empire, and he continues to repress democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press. Mysterious assassinations are even taking place," McCain said. "If oil were still $10 a barrel, Mr. Putin would not pose any kind of a threat. I do not believe you will see a reigniting of the Cold War. But I do believe that Putin and his cadre of KGB friends are causing us great difficulties in a variety of ways, including a failure to assist us in trying to rein in Iranian nuclear ambitions."

But by the same token, Kasparov must realize that the "king" he is attempting to topple wields nuclear power.

And in this match of grandmasters, the stakes indeed may end up as life or death.