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Usual Suspects

Analyzing a banner soccer rating Add to ...

TSN's debut of the Vancouver Whitecaps (thumping Toronto) drew the second largest Major League Soccer TV audience ever in Canada (286,000). That's up 53 per cent from the Toronto FC's season debut last year on CBC.

Does that mean the soccer glass is half full or half empty in Canada? Certainly the number is encouraging to those who believe that widening the number of MLS teams in Canada (Montreal joins next season) would jump-start the ratings. If either team can hold numbers like these then there is hope that gate success for Whitecaps and FC may be translating to the broader TV audience.

On the other hand, while no one believes soccer should be compared to hockey, soccer still isn't within hailing distance of the CFL or curling ratings after almost a half century of trying to gain a foothold here. For more context, CBC draws more viewers for events such as snowboard. So while soccer is definitely trending upward, it has a long way to go before it can compare itself to so-called fringe events, let alone CFL or curling.

A credible national team that can qualify for the World Cup is probably the easiest solution to ratings growth. Success at the world level - and producing a Steve Nash of soccer - would push the sport into national prominence. Until then, MLS will be a strong local story but a void nationally.

Physician Heal Thyself: Rogers Sportsnet is broadcasting a one-hour special Crisis On Ice Thursday night at 8 P.M. on Sportsnet. Hosted by Daren Millard, the show examines the latest NHL crisis over head shots, violence and the dangers of the playing surface in the current game - precipitated by the Zdeno Chara/ Max Pacioretty hit earlier this month. We're predicting Matt Cooke's name may crop up, too.

Admirable. Except this comes from the network that features The Friday Night Fights, a weekly compendium of the punchouts in the league. This week's episode featured a wide selection of fights, peppered with slow-motion replays of punches that concussed the recipients. Based on the evidence linking head trauma to long-term brain damage, how does Sportsnet square its glorification of fighting with its earnest journalistic concern shown by Crisis On Ice? (Sounds like the players aren't the only ones addicted to violence.)

Calling it an "interesting point" Rogers president of broadcasting Scott Moore said, "Given time, I will stand on our balance." Moore pointed out that Scoot Woodgate, the new vice-president of sports and news at Rogers, has only been in place for a few weeks and that all their content is under review.

Too Many Cookes: Amazing how many media people suggested that Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux summarily fire Cooke for his latest lunacy. After all, Lemieux had railed against hockey's bad actors, ergo the only way to prove his bonafides would be to announce he's getting rid of Cooke pronto.

Anyone with a remote familiarity of the CBA should know better. Cooke is signed through 2013, meaning the Penguins are stuck with his salary or buying him out this summer at two/thirds of its remaining value. (They could also send him to the minors where they'd pay him off the books of the salary cap.). But as anyone who knows the CBA could tell you, there is no way to fire him. And if they want to add to the announced suspension they'll have to do it within NHLPA rules.

BTW: Mainstream media is praising the length of the suspension (a max of 17 games) assessed by muddled magistrate Colin Campbell. But amortize this ban over the multiple times Cooke was let off scot-free (remember Marc Savard?) or given less than warranted for a knee, elbow, charge or boarding and the penalty looks far less bold.

Bright Side: Lord knows the NHL needs a little positive spin to distract from the Cooke shenanigans and the ongoing Phoenix follies. That may come in the form of an improved U.S. TV network deal. Sources tell Usual Suspects that a deal could be announced at the beginning of the playoffs in mid-April as a teaser to the postseason. After getting virtually nothing from its NBC network deal last time and an estimated $75-million a year from Comcast (owner of Versus), it's thought that the TV and digital rights could deliver Gary Bettman's commissionership a much-needed coup.

The question remains, who will win what we have been told are exclusive rights starting in 2012? The standard names are out there: NBC/ Comcast (now one company), ESPN and FOX. It's also thought that Turner Networks (TBS, TNT, Tru TV) - currently broadcasting March Madness in the U.S. along with CBS - is in the mix. Helping the NHL is the trend in American programming toward companies buying sports rights to park on one of their secondary cable channels as a supplement to general content. That was the formula when Comcast parked the NHL on Outdoor Life Network (now Versus) in 2005. Fox does it with FX, Turner with Tru.

Plus, NHL rights are a bargain compared to amounts paid to NFL, NBA and MLB. If loyalty means anything - and it never has in the NHL - NBC/Comcast will hang onto the rights. But the league has had a habit of chasing the last buck in prior negotiations.

The NHL's digital rights are also key to the American market. With hockey a boutique TV property in America, fans in under-served areas have come to rely on the leagues CentreIce package and other platforms. So while as many as a dozen franchises are looking for owners, the media future of the NHL is considerably brighter.

Flex Formula: Debate on The TEAM 1040 in Vancouver this week about whether the NHL and Hockey Night In Canada should incorporate a flex game to prevent lame Edmonton/Colorado doubleheaders such as last Saturday's (which still drew 825,000)? Shouldn't the NHL be able to deliver a meaningful matchup late in the stretch (a la NFL)? The short answer is no, if only because even a tepid game with one of the three Western teams would invariably outdraw, say, a Los Angeles/ Anaheim game with everything on the line.

On the subject, however, why aren't we discussing a flex game in the doubleheader opener on HNIC? Watching the Maple Leafs or (lately) the Senators has been a joyless experience for all but diehards. HNIC will tell you that the fanatical brand loyalty of the Maple Leafs and their market demands showing even the most pointless Toronto contest.

Or maybe not. According to the San Francisco Examiner, the Brand Keys survey of Fan Loyalty conducted a week after the Feb. 6 Super Bowl shows that Leaf Nation does not rank in the NHL's top five - indeed it ranks behind that of the Canucks (fourth overall). Maybe it's time to move HNIC to Rogers Arena in Vancouver?

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