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Usual Suspects

Body count becomes an NHL stat, in Cherry’s eye anyway Add to ...

Okay, all you kids out there. You think winning hockey’s all about scorin’ more goals than the other guy and all that stuff. But there’s another statistic that matters. Sure. Opponents you injure. Here’s The Coach Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada talking about the “despised” Vancouver Canucks’ 4-3 win over his beloved Boston Bruins.

“Vancouver’s happy. The referees are happy, because they gave them [Vancouver] 11 power-play goals, er, four power-play goals … not 11 power-play goals, but four on them. And the Bruins are just as happy because they put two of their guys out.”

So the injuries to Vancouver defenceman Sami Salo and centre Andrew Ebbett are now an official NHL statistic. Of course, host Ron MacLean jumped in to contradict Cherry. He didn’t? Oh.

Nice network you’re running there, CBC.

Bowl me over

There are popular social phenomena that don’t bear scrutiny. The Iowa Caucuses. The View. Ben Mulroney. Wondering why only leads to a popsicle headache. In sports, the incomprehensible extends to sports played by teenagers. Here in Canada we just witnessed the world junior hockey championship, which is essentially Doogie Howsers in shin pads for the holidays.

The U.S. equivalent is college football bowl games. People in Tuscaloosa who can’t spell university become deranged watching their favourite college on the 54 inch. Sponsors such as Beef ’O’Brady and TaxSlayer and Bell Helicopter can’t throw enough money at not-ready-for-NFL lads in the latest Nike kit.

This curious process culminates Monday as LSU and Alabama meet in New Orleans for the mythical national championship of U.S. college football. We say mythical, because the teams were selected by a poll, not a playoff, and we know that polling is to reality as Tom Cruise is to acting. No matter. TV people are jacked about a couple of teams that played a 9-6 barn burner earlier this season (LSU won). They promise there will be more scoring this time. It could go 13-10 or even 14-13!

The difference between the world juniors just passed in Alberta and the NCAA Mardi Gras in Big Easy is that, while the hockey kids now go into witness protection for another year in junior hockey, college football is a multibillion-dollar TV staple six months of the year and grist for the journalistic mill 24/7. (Plus, you can bet on the National Collegiate Athletic Association.)

When it comes to programming, college football revenue is more than the froth on your caramel macchiato. While junior hockey teams are worth a million or two, the disgraced Penn State football program grossed $54-million (U.S.) last year. Most industry analysts see no brake on TV’s revenue accelerator as sports remain the final vestige of appointment viewing for networks.

Fuelled by the desire for more lucrative televised appointment games, the top tier of U.S. college football – Division I – is currently playing 52-pickup as teams skip from one conference to another in search of better TV revenues. The Big 10 now has 12 teams but the same title. The Pac 10 is now Pac 12. The Big East is losing two teams but gaining three others. The University of Texas now has its own network. These days it’s an Adam Smith, laissez-faire, I-got-mine jumble funded by ESPN, CBS and all those other TV acronyms.

In their quest to get more LSU and Alabama, TV executives are hoping that non-starters such as New Mexico State, Indiana and Tulane will just go away. The trend isn’t limited to NCAA football. Baseball is the pro sports league that’s closest to the NCAA, having figured out that ESPN and Fox only want a half dozen teams on network TV. The NHL (U.S. Division) is headed in the same direction, offering NBC a schedule of a handful of prime markets while shunning the Nashvilles and Carolinas.

Increasingly, pro leagues will be pressured to deliver big markets if they want the big money. Leagues can run their franchise schemes with 30, 40 teams if they want. What ESPN and NBC want is simpler, more efficient. Bad news if you want the Super Bowl in Minnesota or the Stanley Cup in Ottawa.

Who dat’?

ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden clearly doesn’t get out much. During the Orange Bowl last Thursday, a picture was shown of First Lady Michelle Obama. Said Gruden, “Hey there’s a picture of our Lisa Salters [an ESPN reporter].” Or maybe he’s a Republican.

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