Watching Superstars Go Head-To-Head...

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Watching Superstars Go Head-To-Head...
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Tonight, television sets will be going back-and-forth between the two major showdowns in the NBA and NHL, featuring the two biggest stars in each sport.  

Scratch that, only televisions in Pittsburgh and Washington will have that opportunity.

Tonight, the NBA pits two of the marquee names in the sport against each other as LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers host Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.  Kobe and LeBron renewed their acquaintances earlier in the season when they met at the Staples Center in LA on Christmas Day.  In that game, LeBron and Shaquille O’Neal took home a win in Shaq’s old stomping grounds.

The Cavs didn’t just beat LA in their place, they won by 15 and never relinquished control throughout.  James led a balanced attack with 26 points and 9 assists and Shaq scored in double digits.  

This sets up tonight’s match-up in Cleveland.  Can Kobe take one in LeBron’s crib?  Will a win by the Cavs give them a sizable advantage in the eye’s critics if the two happen to meet in say the NBA Finals?  Will Kobe and LeBron agree to take part in Shaq’s idea for a dunk contest to support Haiti?  (See yesterday’s column for more on that HERE.)

Lucky for us, tonight’s game is nationally televised on TNT.  We will get to see the rematch between of the world’s best in full high-definition.  Additionally, the NBA has only one other scheduled game tonight, the Clippers at the Nuggets, allowing us to focus solely on this can’t miss match-up between Bryant and James.  Tomorrow morning, SportsCenter will show highlight after highlight and of LeBron-Kobe II and have plenty of analysis because once you show the 25 seconds of footage from Clips vs. Nugs, what else is ESPN going to do with the time they normally slot for NBA coverage?

Now on to the NHL, whose main attraction tonight is the Washington Capitals at the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Alexander Ovechkin brings the Caps north to face Sidney Crosby and the Pens.  Clearly, the two most exciting players in hockey facing off against one another.  Sid the Kid is fresh off his Stanley Cup win and Ovechkin, the most prolific goal scorer in the league, has an improved overall game and a fiery mean streak that has come out more than once this year.  Great drama for a league that needs all the attention it can get.

This will be the first of four meetings this year.  All four meetings will occur in the second half of the season and two will happen in the span of just over two weeks (the teams play again on February 7th in DC).  What a great way to showcase the two hottest players right before the Olympic break where hockey takes the world’s stage.  Man, the NHL is really doing this right.  Or so it would seem.

The NHL has 26 teams in action tonight, that’s 13 games.  The only teams not playing tonight are Montreal, New Jersey, Colorado and Edmonton.  Talk about a loaded schedule.  Wouldn’t it have made sense that when Gary Bettman and the rest of the NHL’s brass were reviewing the schedule that they would want that game showcased on a stage it didn’t have to share?  Maybe they could have done something like the NBA did.  You know, like having Kobe and LeBron square off on a night with no other major games so all basketball fans’ attention is affixed square on that duel.

Beyond that, very little time is dedicated to hockey coverage on sports news shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter these days because of the popularity of the league being driven down in the post-strike reality of the NHL.  The fact that ESPN no longer has the contract to broadcast NHL games doesn’t help either.  Money always talks and “The Mothership” doesn’t seem to have any problems finding time in their shows to spotlight leagues and sports they do have contracts for like the NBA, NFL, MLB and even World Cup soccer.  Look, I’m sorry to all the soccer fans out there, but I’m pretty sure the NHL is more popular in the states than “football” and I know it deserves more than two segments a week with Barry Melrose and his fantastic hair.  But, I digress…

The NHL’s blunders do not end with the number of games scheduled.  There is no legitimate  national television available for tonight’s featuring Sid the Kid and Ovi.  The NHL Network (NHLN) will carry the feed from Fox Sports Pittsburgh.  NHLN is not readily available on cable plans.  Where I live in Las Vegas, the network is a part of the sports package for our local cable company’s digital cable option, meaning you would have to pay the monthly fees for the digital service and then add-on that package for another monthly fee.

Make no mistake about it, I’m sure that David Stern and his legion of executives ensures that they have marquee games on television and the schedule supports that.  I’m positive that they sit down with TNT, ESPN and ABC to make sure that LeBron-Kobe is on TV and has top billing.  Can the NHL not do the same with Versus and NBC?  Is Bettman that far removed from working for the NBA (which he did from 1981 until 1993 when he took the job as the NHL’s first commissioner)? 

Why couldn’t the NHL get that game on Versus (and all three Ovechkin-Crosby rematches) and on a night when action was limited?  I mentioned that 12 other NHL games are on the schedule for tonight.  Last night there were three games played and the same number is on tap for tomorrow night.  Would it have been that hard to cater the schedule to get Caps-Pens on one of those two nights, even if it meant back-to-backs for either Washington or Pittsburgh?  It’s almost shocking that a league with such a declining fan base would not look at things like this especially after their seven-game playoff battle last May.

Interestingly enough, the Caps-Pens game starts at 7:30 EST, 30-45 minutes before the Cavs and Lakers tip.  What if the game were on national television and Ovechkin and Crosby lit it up the first period of the game?  LeBron and Kobe may not get all the viewers they were probably expecting as fans settled their way in to a comfort zone, watching the artistry of two of the NHL’s best offensive players.

What it all comes down to is Bettman.  For a commissioner who was essentially brought in to expand the game, end labor unrest and modernize the United States’ view of hockey, he has consistently fallen below expectations.  After a period of over-expansion that resulted in a diluted talent pool and franchises in several smaller markets with a lack of support for a pro hockey team, the NHL suffered through two labor disputes.

The first lockout during the 1994-95 season resulted in a 48-game season.  One of the main issues in that lockout was a plan to aid smaller market teams.  Yes, the small market teams that Bettman had just finished expanding to.

The subsequent lockout, ten years later in 2004-05, led to the cancellation of the entire NHL season, a decision whose reverberations are still being felt and that the league has never recovered from.  It should be noted, though, that Bettman was lauded for bringing the lockout to end with a hard salary cap based on league revenues and a rollback on player salaries.  But was the loss of a season worth that bounty?

Since the lockout of 04-05, television dollars have dwindled to nearly nothing.  ESPN and ABC declined to renew their option to broadcast the league’s game in 2005-06, stating that the cost was overvalued.  My guess is that it takes a lot to get ESPN to turn your sport down since they collect broadcast rights like Alex Rodriguez collects girls’ phone numbers.  

NBC would only sign a limited deal with no money up front.  Bettman was able to cajole the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) to sign a deal with the NHL.  Outdoor life?  It’s a good thing they play NHL games is cozy arenas.  The network changed its name to Versus down the road.  Bettman has been heavily criticized by this move and it’s evident that the league has lost numerous fans for this decision, though can you blame ESPN for dropping a league that gave them zero games a season prior?

Pro hockey’s follies only accentuate the fact that the NBA seems to do everything right.  Stern has run the league since 1984 and was originally hired by the NBA as its General Counsel in 1978 (the year I was born).  The league knows how to market its stars and has conducted its business without many sidesteps, while recovering quickly from the ones they have made (like 1999’s lockout). 

The NHL, meanwhile, can’t seem to get out of its own way.

So…tonight, while we should be flipping back and forth between Ovi vs. Sid the Kid and LeBron vs. Kobe, viewers will be fixated on the drama in Cleveland. 

At least the can look forward to Melrose’s two minutes of coverage and perfect hair on SportsCenter later that night.

 

 

Joshua Wikler writes a column on his blog, hosted at http://scoreboardwatching.wordpress.com

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