Return Of The Prodigal Son…

I’m back from Seattle and from watching four games at Safeco Field including the triumphal return of Ken Griffey Jr. to Seattle. He received a hero’s welcome there; he got about a 3-5 minute standing ovation during pre-game ceremonies welcoming him “home”; he got another standing ovation when he came out to the on-deck circle for his first at-bat; he got a standing ovation every time he came to the plate. I was trying to think of any other player who might get that kind of welcome from fans after he had decided to leave that city to play elsewhere and I can’t come up with one.

I’ve said it before and I’ll reiterate. Ichiro Suzuki is worth the price of admission all by himself. If you have not seen him play and you have the opportunity to do so, take that opportunity. He is a special player.

Some other things in the sporting world are also “special” in a different sense of the word. Here’s one of them. Starting in July, a league for video gamers will commence play. The Championship Gaming Series will have six franchises in various cities and they recently held a draft for players/gamers. DirecTV will televise the competitions. What’s the over/under on how long it will be until ESPN televises the draft for this new “league”? Like I said, this is really special…

And since I’m talking about televised “sports”, am I the only one who is beginning to wonder how long the upward spiral of networks’ rights fees can continue? Ratings are down for just about everything except NFL Football – - and in some cases they are down more than a little bit. No one watched the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs – even the finals. When no horse had a shot at the Triple Crown, the ratings for the Belmont Stakes were trivial. The NBA playoffs ratings were down yet again. And so it goes. Fewer people are watching sports on TV now than watched 5 years ago. And in that environment, the leagues seek higher rights fees and networks pay them. I don’t get it.

Even the NFL rights fees are out of control. When the last series of negotiations were underway, ABC claimed to have lost more than a hundred million dollars on its MNF package. So, of course the other arm of Disney involved with sports – - ESPN – - bid even more money for the MNF package for the current period of time. I know that I’m not Warren Buffett, but that just doesn’t make a lot of business sense to me. And I have to wonder when the network execs will decide that losing gobs of money on sports rights fees just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore.

Talk about the potential for a bubble collapsing, can you imagine what will happen to sports franchises that have huge guaranteed contracts hanging out there when the TV money starts to head south? It seems to me that the trigger point here will be when advertising agencies decide to stop paying increased ad rates for time on sporting events based on reduced viewership. When/if that happens, it should not be a long time until the folks who have been dining at the trough of pro sports start to get their shorts in a knot.

If you think I’m being a Cassandra here, think about this. Owners and players and agents have been reveling in the glory of the sports revenue tsunami for the past 10-15 years. There’s a lot of money out there and all of these folks are getting a nice chunk of change from pro sports. Now, tell me what those folks have done individually or collectively to grow the fan base of the sport. Owners have raised prices for tickets and parking and hot dogs and … [Aside: At Safeco Field this week, I saw bottled water for $4.00 a bottle. Do you think there’s a bit of a mark-up there?] Players have become aloof and guarded when they aren’t being downright anti-social or criminal in their behavior. Agents seem to go out of their way to annoy fans instead of trying to cultivate them. When/if the bubble bursts, all of these folks will deserve a share of the blame for the collapse.

The NHL may be in a position to survive a collapse despite its minuscule TV ratings because after the yearlong strike/lockout/work stoppage/whatever, the league seems to have its finances under control even with only a trickle of TV revenues. Granted, prices to see NHL games live and in person are very high, but the league may be able to “take a hit” here as well as any other leagues – - and better than some such as the NBA. I read somewhere – and forgot to note where so I cannot cite the source – that the six Canadian franchises in the NHL (20% of the league) generated 35% of the revenue for the league. I’m not shocked by those figures even though that is a big deviation from the “even distribution model”. Here’s what surprises me a bit…

A Canadian has recently purchased the Nashville Predators and has indicated that he’d like to move that team to Hamilton, Ontario. The league is resisting that move. I never think of Nashville as a “hotbed of hockey”, so why would the NHL oppose adding another franchise to its roster that might generate above average revenues? And don’t tell me about the need for a national footprint in order to get a TV deal. The NHL has a national footprint and its TV deal is with a network that specializes in televising bull riding, fishing competitions and infomercials. I don’t get this at all.

I’m not a hockey guy so maybe there’s a real reason why I don’t get this next hockey item. Mike Keenan just got a job as the new coach of the Calgary Flames. This is the eighth team in the NHL that he has coached and even I know that his departure from most – if not all – of the previous franchises was less than totally amicable. Can someone explain to me how this guy keeps on getting jobs in that league?

The premature death of a professional wrestler often involves drug usage and a life that seems to have spun out of control. The latest case – the death of Chris Benoit – is far more tragic than that. According to police, Benoit “strangled his wife”; then “suffocated his young son”; then placed a Bible next to their corpses before “hanging himself with a weight-machine pulley”. It appears as if all this happened over a two or three day period. And yes, anabolic steroids were found in the house…

Finally, Jim Armstrong had these observations about sports TV ratings recently in the Denver Post:

“We are all witnesses, Nike’s marketing people like to say. Not according to the television ratings for the NBA Finals, we aren’t. At least the NHL has an excuse. Most people have to hire a private investigator to find the Versus network.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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