So I might have been the only person who woke up after Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, turned to The Washington Post sports section and wondered why their article about the game was a wire service story and not written by an actual Post staff writer. (Actually there was at least one other guy--he had a letter printed in the Post this past Saturday.) Considering Washington does have an NHL franchise with the man widely considered the best and most exciting young player in the game, and that the Post fancies itself a national sports section (more on that later), it bothered me. So when I saw that on the afternoon of Game 3, washingtonpost.com had scheduled a chat with Capitals beat writer Tarik El-Bashir, I decided to ask him myself.http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2006/06/06/DI2006060601148.html
Did Mr. El-Bashir fall ill and was unable to cover the games? Did he have a wedding to go to over the weekend, and the Post couldn't find someone to replace him, but he was now in Edmonton prepping for Game 3? No, actually my worst fears were realized. Tarik--apparently through no fault of his own--was watching the games on the couch just like I was. Here's my question and his response:
Rockville, Md.: So why aren't you or anyone from the Post actually covering the Stanley Cup finals? Raleigh isn't even that far away--less than five hours by car. The paper couldn't send anyone down there for games one and two?
Tarik El-Bashir: My editors made the decision that the interest in the DC market simply did not justify the expense. The teams involved are from small markets and T.V. ratings -- a major indicator of public interest in a sport -- have been smaller than usual.
But don't think that our not covering the finals means we have given up on hockey.
Well, glad to hear that the Post will at least bother to cover the Caps next year (and to be fair, El-Bashir does a perfectly fine job of covering them.) And I'm not sure how much value there is to chat about the Stanley Cup finals with a reporter who is watching all the games on television(because one's understanding of hockey--and its excitement--is enhanced more than any other sport by being at the game because you are better able to see the ice, the plays develop, etc.), but I was overjoyed to see an NHL chat and hope they continue.
But much more important than those two things is that El-Bashir said his editors didn't feel it was worth the expense to send a reporter to the finals, didn't feel it was worth the expense to send a reporter to hear Commissioner Gary Bettman's "State of the NHL" speech, didn't feel it was worth it to send a reporter to hear all the league gossip, and, most importantly, didn't feel it was worth sending a reporter to, um, COVER THE GAMES. (Unbelievably, they didn't even deign to send a reporter for a one-night trip to Game 7, and, as I mentioned in my chat, it's only a few hours' drive away.)
El-Bashir said his editors felt interest in the D.C. market wasn't justified because the teams were from small markets (certainly true, but the Carolina Panthers are in the Caps' division and better known in Washington than probably a number of other teams) and the TV ratings were low. I'm certainly not going to argue that the TV ratings for the NHL playoffs were anything other than awful--although the fact that most of the playoffs were on OLN, a network 99 percent of the country either doesn't have or doesn't know it has, were a contributing factor. And I'm not going to argue that the ratings for the final five games of the finals in primetime on NBC weren't pathetically low either. But when you compare them with what the NBA fans like the Post's Michael Wilbon are calling the most exciting NBA playoffs in years with people more intersted than they've been since Jordan retired the first time, blah, blah, blah, they really aren't that bad, and certainly don't justify the Post's coverage decisions.
The Post has a beat writer covering the NBA playoffs, two columnists (Wilbon and Mike Wise), and even another reporter who works out of Miami (Amy Shipley) and has been filing some stories, including one in today's paper, about the NBA series. So if the Post is making its decisions based on TV ratings, that would seem to me to indicate that the NBA finals must have more than three times the ratings of the NHL finals. Let's look at the numbers.
Using the ratings provided by thefutoncritic.com,the broadcast of Game 4 of the NHL finals on NBC last Monday night got a 2.5 overall rating and a 1.5 rating in the 18-49 demographic. The following night, game 2 of the NBA finals on ABC received a 7.0 overall rating and a 4.3 in the 18-49 demographic. On Wednesday, the NHL moved up to a 2.7/1.7 (actually beating ABC's night of programming, which included a rerun of Lost), and on Thursday the NBA got a 6.8/4.0. And on Sunday (I'm skipping Saturday's NHL game 6 because no one watches network television anymore on Saturday night), in what's being billed as one of the most exciting NBA finals games in recent memory, Game 5 ratings were 7.8/5.1, while last night's thrilling NHL game received a 3.5/2.3.
Without doing any sophisticated statistical analysis (and I don't remember how to do that standard deviation thing I learned in statistics class, nor remember whether it's even relevant here), a little adding and multiplying indicate that the NBA is not t tripling the ratings of the NHL, and is only slightly doubling the NHL ratings in the 18-49 demographic. Yeah, I know, that still sounds pretty pathetic, but it doesn't in any way justify the 3 1/2 to 0 coverage ratio of NBA to NHL. And keep this in mind: The NBA has probably the most well-known player in the NBA, Shaquille O'Neal, in the finals, as well as one of the two most well-known young stars in Dwayne Wade, and another guy who probably been one of the top 10 players in the NBA in Dirk Nowitzki, as well as two pretty big cities represented in Dallas and Miami.
The NHL has a small Canadian city in Edmonton and a Southern city in Raleigh much smaller than Dallas or Miami in the finals. And they have two teams with no known stars--in fact, I don't think I could have named more than two players on the Edmonton Oilers before the playoffs started, and I'm being generous. And I like hockey. (A finals with, let's say, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin might have drawn some more viewers, don't you think, although I know that Washington and Pittsburgh could never play each other in the finals and Mario is retired, but I'm just making a point....)
And the NHL hardly got any coverage in places like the Washington Post during the playoffs--the only actual staff-written article about the NHL in the last few weeks was an article about how bad the TV ratings were for the playoffs (Chicken or egg, anyone?).
I guess I shouldn't be surprised, since while covering the Caps, the Post hasn't actually covered the NHL all year (one of the top players in the league, Joe Thornton, was traded during the year and I believe it merited one sentence in the Post.) And I'm still kind of stunned at the lack of institutional memory at the Post about hockey--during the Olympics, they covered the hockey tournament pretty well, but there was not one mention that the coach of the gold-medal winning Swedish team was Bengt Gustafsson, one of the best and most popular Cap players of all time (he played most of the 1980s with the club, and The Washington Times remembered and did a story.)
Maybe the Washington Post has access to the NHL and NBA ratings in the Washington market and the ratings were much worse for the NHL and much better for the NBA here. But of course, that shouldn't really matter, because it's clear after the past few days that the Post fancies itself a national sports section (except when it comes to the Redskins and they lose all control.)
Obviously, Post editors had no way of knowing beforehand that this weekend's Nationals-Yankees series would feature three unbelievably dramatic games in a row. But the Yankees were coming to town, for the first time since 1971, and won't be back for another six years, and you'd think that might merit a columnist, or at least another reporter to write a sidebar piece. But no, Wise and Wilbon are with the NBA, Boswell was at the U.S. Open, and all we got was Barry Svrluga's excellent, but lonely, game story. No columnist, no sidebar, no nothing. I was excited to get up Monday morning and read a bunch of articles about Ryan Zimmerman's thrilling walk-off home run, but no such luck. And what bothers me is this: I can read 46 articles on ESPN.com and SI.com and whatever else about the NBA finals (and choose to read none of them unless they involve Mark Cuban, because he's entertaining). I could have read 81 articles about Phil Mickelson's collapse on ESPN.com, etc., but got bored after about half of one. But I can't read anything but a wire service story on those sites about the Nats-Yankees game Sunday. The Post let me down, for the second time this month.