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Soccer player David Beckham, left, hits his son Romeo in the face with a towel after he was given a puck that went into the crowd as they watch the Los Angeles Kings play the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference finals, Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)
Soccer player David Beckham, left, hits his son Romeo in the face with a towel after he was given a puck that went into the crowd as they watch the Los Angeles Kings play the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference finals, Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)

Usual Suspects

Star power hasn’t been enough to ignite NHL TV ratings in the U.S. Add to ...

The imminent Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings have Alyssa Milano, Dennis Miller, David Beckham and Matthew Perry as fans, but star power hasn’t been enough to ignite American TV ratings. Through three games, the Kings/New Jersey Devils Final has lagged behind last year’s record ratings for Vancouver/Boston on the NBC family of networks.

Worst news first: Viewership on NBC Sports Channel for Monday’s Game 3 was 1.7 million, down 37 per cent from the nearly 2.8 million rating last year for Bruins-Canucks. The identical 2-1 Kings’ wins in the first two games in New Jersey drew identical 2.9 ratings - the lowest number after a pair of Finals games since 2007. As a point of reference, the worst rated game of last year’s Finals games on network TV was a 3.5 in Game 2. At this rate, the 2012 ratings could be the second worst since 1995.

(CBC says it won’t reveal its numbers till the Final is over.)

Granted, the two teams have no great brand loyalty, but it’s a setback for a league that believed it had a breakthrough last year and is considering (yet again) a shutdown of its business for a labour squabble. It used to be accepted wisdom that for the NHL ratings to succeed, a Final needed two large U.S. media markets. Vancouver belied that idea as it drew terrific ratings playing foil to the big. bad Bruins. As added proof, this year you have the top two metro media markets in the U.S. but lower numbers.

We’ll wait till the series ends to draw conclusions on what went wrong. But with these numbers maybe the NHL shouldn’t even start next season. What? That’s what they’re planning?

Market Forces: There has been criticism of how the NHL has marketed this Final. (Although how do you pimp a style of play that makes the Siege of Sebastopol look artistic?) As opposed to the star turns in the NBA playoffs now under way, NHL stars are largely coached out of the game in playoffs (with the complicity of the NHL Hockey Operations department). Scoring has been minimal with just 10 goals total.

Not that one affects the other, but the NBA - with many of its top stars and teams still in play - is putting up record ratings for its Round 3. While just three of the top 30 NHL scorers is in the Final, the NBA playoffs are still replete with its top stars from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan. TV likes stars, ergo TV likes what the NBA delivers.

Another nagging point is that the NHL’s marketing machine is still grinding out Bobby Orr nostalgia in the final round to hype the Stanley Cup. Look, Orr’s the best ever, but how about trying to make stars of guys who are playing this year, not last century? Build new stars instead of coasting on the old ones. That’s Don Cherry’s MO.

La-La Land: With a diversion every five seconds for Los Angelenos, there’s not much hope that a Kings’ Stanley Cup win will resonate much past another Lindsay Lohan sighting. Not even the public address dude at the Kings home, the Staples Center, can pay attention long enough to get the narrative. Introducing Gretzky before Game 3, the Kings’ man said, “His play on the ice rewrote the NHL record books, and his arrival in Los Angeles in 1998 changed the face of hockey and the NHL forever."

Yup, having Gretzky for another 10 years certainly changed the face of hockey in Edmonton where he led them to eight Stanley cups. They wish.

Das Boot: Does elite soccer have something to teach the North American sports leagues? When the Euro 2012 kicks off Friday in Poland on TSN it will be followed by an unprecedented number of Canadians who suddenly view elite soccer as must-see TV. While the popularity of domestic soccer in Canada remains on a low boil, the appeal of the Euro Tournament or Champions League or FA Cup has heated up to impressive levels in recent years.

Certainly, TSN is counting on the events (held during the daytime ET) to deliver solid ratings. Its competition at Sportsnet and The Score have their own soccer boutique sections that they’re growing in response.

Even as leagues such as the NHL, NBA and MLB blithely continue with conventional schedules, soccer has understood and delivered on TV’s growing craving for event TV that demands major titles, legendary rivalries, holiday viewing and championship games.

While North American leagues steam inevitably toward a single championship game or series, soccer has a buffet of attractions geared to must-see TV. Choose from among the classic rivalries of the Premiership in Britain, Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. Add in the Football Association and Football League Cup, UEFA Champions League and Europa League and Coppa Italia. Season with promotion and relegation matches at season’s end.

Tie it in a neat bow by May, and then make way for the quadrennial FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro tournaments. All played by the sport’s elite players from around the globe for television to lap up. Like NCAA March Madness it’s compact, emphasizes star power for players and franchises and marries perfectly with the limited attention span of the TV audience (it’s no coincidence that Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the best round).

This formula is not a surprise to North American sports officials. While the omnipotent NFL can sniff at change, leagues such as the NHL are quietly moving to create event TV. The Winter Classic, NHL Draft, HBO’s 24/7 and even the Draft Lottery are being tailored as must-see events. NHL COO John Collins talks of making the playoffs like March Madness. But can they change fast enough to save the TV networks and their huge TV rights deals?

Tart Torts: Or maybe the NHL just needs more John Tortorella. The New York Rangers volatile head coach has been making the rounds of TV talk shows since his team’s elimination to explain his unique relationship with the media. Torts ripped the press corps during the playoff, using some choice profanity in doing so.

Talking to NBC’s Bob Costas, Tortorella explained, "I don't take anything back. There are a couple of reporters there that I do think are idiots. There has to be an accountability there from the reporters also, as far as how they present themselves and go about their business. It's easy to say 'I'm sorry' [but] I'm not sorry for most of the things I've said." Gee, if the Devils had shown that pushback we might not be looking at a sweep tonight.

Concluded Tortorella: “It's to fill their blogs, to fill their 'tweeters' or whatever you wanna call that stuff, the Twitter accounts. I'm not too interested in the social media. I'm wrapped up in the hockey club at that time. That's my only focus." Tweeters? Isn’t that sweet?

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