PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- T.J. Oshie is the second-leading scorer on the third-best team in the National Hockey League, which meant absolutely nothing to most U.S. viewers of this year's Winter Olympics.
He'd been sent to the line six times during the game-ending shootout portion of the U.S. men's hockey team's opening-round matchup with Russia. He scored four times for Team USA and netted the game-winner. Still, Oshie's name elicited little more than a "Who's that" from casual fans. Oshie is one of the NHL's top scorers on a rising St. Louis Blues team, and his performance drew a record 4.1 million viewers on average for NBC Sports on Saturday, including 6.4 million who tuned in to the last half-hour just to see the shootout.
That should be great for the league and Oshie, but it's disappointing when compared with the average TV audience of 4 million people who watched Game 3 of last year's Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. That was the highest-rated broadcast in NBC Sports Network history and drew an audience that actually wanted to watch hockey. The NHL is seeing diminishing returns on its Olympic contribution, and not even another Miracle On Ice could help it regain the Olympic spirit.
For the past five Winter Olympics, the NHL has sent its players to the Winter Olympics with its blessing. Each year it did so, it closed up shop within the one portion of its calendar when it faces no competition in the U.S. from football or baseball and minimal encroachment from either college or professional basketball.
Each time, it's seen interest in the league either level out or dip immediately afterward. Some of that is the NHL's own fault, with multiple work stoppages erasing games, eliminating an entire season and shaking fans' faith in the league. But even the NHL's owners are reaching the conclusion that the time, lost revenue and multimillion-dollar human resources they're expending for the sake of the Olympics are a bad investment.
Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider broke protocol before the Sochi Games and, via the Flyers' own website, ripped into the decision to break up the NHL season every four years and send its athletes off to games that not only hold little to no benefit for the league, but could result in injuries to players considered valuable commodities to their teams in the U.S. and Canada:
"If I had my way, we'd never go to the Olympics. We're the only league that breaks up our season. Basketball plays in the winter, but they play Olympics in the summer. It's ridiculous. The whole thing's ridiculous.'
Snider is certainly not the only NHL owner who feels this way. During an appearance on TSN 1050 Radio in Toronto last week, TSN reporter Darren Dreger implied that NHL owners had absolutely no interest in sending their players to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the reasons Snider stated.
"One thing that we need to appreciate with Ed Snider and many owners around the league: They weren't in support of the NHL participating in the Olympic games in Sochi. And the NHL will not participate in Korea."
In their eyes, the Olympics are holding them back just as their teams and the NHL are starting to get their house in order. The league brings in roughly $3 billion in revenue compared with $8 billion for Major League Baseball and $9.5 billion for the National Football League. It's canceled 2,100 games during the various work stoppages under Commissioner Gary Bettman's 21-year tenure. It lost television contracts with ESPN and Fox during that time and, according to Forbes, has only a handful of teams that actually make money.
That makes the NHL's small, tenuous steps forward all the more important. The 10-year, $2 billion deal the league reached with NBC Sports in 2012 was big, but its impact on a Canadian television deal with CBC and other networks is expected to be even larger and more lucrative once CBC's current deal expires at the end of this season. The NHL's realignment that preceded the 2013-14 season not only put teams into time zones that made sense for home television, but opened two potential spots for Western expansion. The league's Winter Classic outdoor game on New Year's Day in Ann Arbor, Mich., tied its best-ever ratings share and was followed up by a Stadium Series of well-received events in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
All of that momentum skids to a halt when the arenas go dark for a few weeks and the league's star players go to some predetermined point on the globe. So why does the NHL keep doing this? Because those stars want to play and because the league's higher echelons still think it's going to pay off somehow.
Back in 2010, the average of 27.6 million U.S. viewers who watched the men's hockey gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada was a bigger audience than baseball's World Series had drawn since 2004. It was more watched than any NBA Finals or NCAA Men's Final Four game since 1998. It was an NFL big-game audience with a ratings share that ranked behind only the Super Bowl and college football's championship game that year.
It was a wonderful thing... for Canada. As Forbes note, three of the league's Top 5 most-valuable teams -- the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks -- are in Canada. All of Canada's teams rank among the Top 16 most-valuable franchises in the 32-team league. That includes the Winnipeg Jets, who got a one-way ticket to Canada two years ago after struggling as the Atlanta Thrashers.
In the U.S., however, just about any absence of the NHL is a setback for hockey. The most-watched regular-season NHL games of the past 28 years have been Winter Classics, but those games don't mean much when the NHL has to stop completely a month and a half later. Last year's Stanley Cup Finals between the Bruins and Blackhawks were the highest-rated since the New York Rangers broke their 54-year Cup drought in 1994, with Game 6 drawing 8.16 million viewers for NBC. That was the ninth-highest-rated Stanley Cup game in televised hockey history and the third-highest-rated since the end of the 1970s.
That's success worth building upon and that's routinely wasted by the NHL's stop-and-go approach to its seasons. The Olympics bring hockey to a larger audience and place NHL players on a bigger stage, but they haven't translated to a boost for the NHL or hockey in the U.S. in more than three decades. The NHL's just starting to build some momentum, and Snider's within his rights to note that the Olympics are killing it.
With no Soviet supervillain to root against, no geopolitical underpinnings to matchups of global NHL stars and no real benefit to having professionals on the ice, the National Hockey League has nothing prompting it to send its athletes to the Olympics. As long as casual U.S. fans draw a blank on Oshie's name and need the lines on the ice explained to them, it will take nothing short of a miracle to bring the NHL back to the Winter Olympics in 2018.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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