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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Online Piracy Goes Live

Once a distribution issue reserved to reek havoc on the revenues of the music and film industries, the New York Times reveals that piracy has migrated to the playing field of the four major North American sports leagues targeting their live product.

With laughable cable options and overpriced almost-all-inclusive television packages, the NHL has taken matters into their own hands and plagiarized their way into the 21st century. For years, Commissioner Gary Bettman has matched his protégé David Stern's management strategies stride for stride, alienating diehard fans and burying much of its tradition in the process. Last year the NHL turned its attention to MLB and learned their website revealed a mighty live game transmission technology.

Realizing ESPN was likely never again going to air NHL hockey and unsatisfied with the reach of their sole content provider, an obscure bull riding cable channel inspired by Outdoor Life magazine, the league launched NHL GameCenter in April 2007. No longer would they have to worry about satellite and cable providers refusing to carry their channel. No longer would they fall victim to embarrassing Heidi Game moments, for example when NBC left the overtime period of the 2007 Eastern Conference Final in favor of hours of pre-race Preakness Stakes coverage. And no longer would Bettman have to utter make nonsensical statements about their weak ratings such as "we don't have to apologize to anybody for what we are."

You’re right Mr. Bettman, you don’t have to apologize. And neither does the comedy king of West Virginia for dishing out a Barney Fife beating on the 2007 NHL All Star game. Eighty-five percent more viewers watching a TV Land rerun of The Andy Griffiths Show than the NHL’s finest performing in an All Star Game on NBC? Ouch.

But that was the past. GameCenter is live and the future is bright. For the NHL, delivering action online promises a reliable and readily available source for fans to access games. And perhaps one day, a much needed revenue stream to supplement gate receipts.

It should be noted that differences exist between the business models of baseball and hockey, and these subtleties ought to be considered in the NHL's online offering. Most notably, the former has fans and lucrative television contracts. At $21 per month GameCenter may seem like a pretty good deal. Pretty good that is, if you didn't know that MLB offers twice the games for half the price and rolled out their first online season gratis. Under the circumstances, perhaps the appropriate price point for NHL GameCenter is free. The online feed should complement a fan's viewing options, not hold them hostage and gouge them for failing to offer viable alternatives. If free doesn't fit the bill, then why not borrow from another company that's had some experience selling online content, Apple. 99 cents a game.

If there's a lesson to be learned from the wreckage of the once lucrative recorded music industry, it's that consumers will follow the path of least resistance to fulfill their wants and needs. With websites offering pirated versions of live NHL games for free, a bite-sized price point is needed to socialize existing fans and welcome new ones to the NHL's GameCenter space. Just because you built it, doesn't mean they will come. Savvy?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tocchet Drops Opener, But Covers Spread

A beautiful thing happened last week in Tampa Bay when the mulleted 13 year ESPN analyst and 16 game coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning Barry Melrose surrendered his post to convicted felon Rick Tocchet.

How often to you get to see a washed up analyst pass the coaching reins of a $200m sports franchise to a convicted felon on probation? Not often enough. Did Melrose get a fair shake? Probably not. Does anybody really care? Probably not.

Rick Tocchet skated fists first into the NHL in 1984, notching 440 goals and earning almost 3000 penalty minutes during his 18 year playing career. His coaching career commenced in Colorado in 2002, right around the time he started his illegal gambling ring with New Jersey State Trooper Harney and New Jersey businessman Ulmer. In 2005, Rick joined the coaching staff in Phoenix . . . And then the law came knocking. What followed is best presented in timeline fashion:

2/5/07 – Still an Assistant Coach of the Phoenix Coyotes
2/6/07 – Ordered to appear to answer to criminal charges
2/7/07 – NHL encourages a “leave of absence”
5/25/07 – Pleaded guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling
7/8/07 – Plays in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas
8/17/07 – Sentenced to two years probation
10/29/07 - Findings of NHL-commissioned investigation
2/6/08 – NHL reinstates Tocchet
2/7/08 – Back behind the bench in Phoenix
11/16/08 – Head coach of Tampa Bay Lightning

When the dust settled in Operation Slapshot, State Trooper Harney got locked up for five years, while Ulmer and Tocchet each drew two years of probation, basically a 1,051,200 minute unsportsmanlike minor that runs through August 17, 2009.

During his five year tenure as a leader of an illegal gambling ring, Rick placed thousands of bets totaling millions of dollars, including for the wife of Head Coach Wayne Gretzky and for his then boss GM Mike Barnett. Think of it as a momentary lapse in judgment that was repeated thousands of times over a five year period.

My personal favorite moment came when during his “leave of absence” while awaiting sentencing in New Jersey for criminal gambling charges, Tocchet traveled to Las Vegas and enter the World Series of Poker seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gary Bettman’s half brother Jeffrey Pollack is the Commission of the World Series of Poker.

Luckily for the Lightning, what Rick lacks in off-ice judgment, he makes up for in on-ice experience working over the executive ranks of the South East Division.