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As NBA succeeds, NHL struggles

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Sorry about that.

When it comes to the NBA and NHL, the hackneyed homage to Charles Dickens actually makes sense. One is enjoying a robust period of popularity and plenty of attention, while the other insists on doing things that take it further away from the mainstream. The last week has proven the point. While the NBA has bolted from the blocks with strong TV ratings, the NHL continues to bump into things with a lockout that has already resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of games and has torpedoed the league’s showpiece, the Winter Classic.

NBA TV’s broadcast of the Lakers-Blazers season-opening game resulted in the highest ratings the network has achieved for a regular-season contest. It was an early indication that the league’s winning streak is going to continue. Although professional basketball is in no danger of supplanting the NFL as America’s sporting religion, it has outdone Major League Baseball for five consecutive years in regular season, early-round playoffs and final round series TV numbers. Baseball may be the American pastime, but when it comes to creating compelling personalities and matching them in contests that capture the sporting public’s attention, it can’t touch the NBA.

Just look at what happened during the recent World Series. TV ratings (7.6) were the lowest ever. Meanwhile, last year’s NBA Finals pulled a 10.1, about 25% better than what baseball managed in the San Francisco sweep of Detroit. But this isn’t about baseball and basketball. It’s about how the NBA is moving forward, and the NHL is sliding – literally – away from relevance.

This has been a long time coming. For a couple decades now, the NHL has been slowly drifting toward niche sport status. Last year’s Stanley Cup final series between New Jersey and LA was the lowest rated since 2007, when only a few ice fishermen and the province of Ottawa watched Anaheim against the Senators. The NHL’s TV contract, with NBC and (primarily) NBC Sports Network doesn’t exactly guarantee the league maximum exposure. ESPN rarely shows a full menu of game highlights on SportsCenter, and there are great swaths of the U.S. that care little about the fastest game on ice.

Back in 1980, the NBA emerged from the dark ages of the ‘70s by focusing on the big personalities that had entered the league. By capitalizing on the charisma of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving, the league created rivalries that were fascinating. When Michael Jordan joined the league in the middle of the decade, the NBA’s attraction was at an all-time high.

That model has been replicated in the 21st century with the emergence of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. They have joined more established stars like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade to form a nexus of a star system that draws in viewers and fans. Sure, there are still some trouble spots (hello, Charlotte!), but the NBA has mastered the sale of standout players to its fan base and has broadcast partners willing to perpetuate that model. Compare the NBA’s relationships with ABC/ESPN and Turner with the NHL’s partnering with NBC. One grouping allows for a near-nightly presentation of game action, buttressed by ESPN’s daily onslaught of highlights and original programming that is capable of promoting the league consistently. The other pairing brings limited exposure and puts the NHL in direct competition with the entity capable of bringing it to a larger audience, ESPN.

Then, there is the lockout. It appears as if the NHL and its players have learned absolutely nothing from the dark 2004-05 season. By subjecting its fans to yet another maddening work stoppage, the league risks driving away any casual observers. Pitting commissioner Gary Bettman against NHLPA leader Donald Fehr, who made his bones leading baseball to the brink of disaster, is a recipe for catastrophe. Although talks have been held, and there is some hope that a resolution can be reached in the coming days or weeks, the NHL will not be welcomed back with the same enthusiasm as the NBA was last Christmas or the NFL was in the summer of 2011.

The most telling indication that the NHL will have a tough road back is that the media is hardly wringing its hands over this one. Why? Because the big dog, ESPN, has no stake in the game, and other media outlets are busy chronicling the NFL’s many storylines and jumping aboard the NBA train. Hockey lockout news barely warrants mention in the “Sports in Brief” section of the paper. When (if?) the NHL returns this year, it will have to build back to its previous level as a mid-major sport, without benefit of any momentum from a thrilling conclusion to last season. In other words, it’s probable the NHL could not have picked a worse time to shutter its arenas.

Meanwhile, the NBA rolls on, piling up the viewers and maximizing its media partnerships.

Talk about some good times.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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