"You guys will NEVER be on HBO!"
These were the last words from an obviously disappointed and possibly somewhat inebriated Washington Capitals fan before getting into a taxi cab outside of the restaurant across the street from the St. Pete Times Forum currently known as The Luxury Box (give it a week or two) after being swept out of the 2011 NHL Playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
At first I thought, what an odd thing to say. That's the best you got? I almost yelled, "Yeah, and we'll never host a Winter Classic either. Who cares?" I mean, after all, it's about winning championships, not booking TV appearances. Right?
Maybe, maybe not. Consider that the two most high-profile events the NHL offers, the Winter Classic and the Stanley Cup Finals, are intertwined in that every year, one team that participates in the Winter Classic makes it to the Stanley Cup Finals...until this year. Tampa Bay eliminated both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Capitals, the two teams that sqaured off in the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, and were featured in "24/7", a documentary TV series on HBO leading up to the Winter Classic. You gotta figure at least a couple of people in the NHL marketing department aren't thrilled and may have muttered the exact same words as that frustrated Caps fan.
For better or for worse, we are of the 1st generation of sports fans to understand that sports are a business and that television is the engine that drives the train. We're as comfortable with discussing concepts like revenue sharing, labor negotiations, salary caps and the disparity between large and small markets as we are with Goals Against Average and Penalty Killing Percentage.
In a lot of ways, I'm thinking it's for worse. On one hand, it's good that we're all adults and it's healthy to understand that fun and games is actually Fun & Games ®. It's a good idea to be grounded in reality when teams start lobbying for new stadiums and such. On the other hand, I don't see why all the fun has to be sucked out of everything.
A guy I know in St. Louis, who seems to live for tormenting me about our local teams (probably because he's a Blues, Rams and Cardinals fan and inherently bitter...mostly about the Blues), posted this on my Facebook page after the Lightning completed the sweep the other night:
"Just what NBC had in mind when they signed a two billion dollar TV deal with the NHL.. A Vancouver-Tampa Cup final.."
I guess this is post-modern sports smack talk; he's got us skipping the conference finals...but somehow that's not a good thing. I never thought I'd say I miss the old-timey days when somebody would say our goalie sucks (whether or not a rational, fact-based argument either way could be made) but I do because I don't really know how I'm supposed to respond to something like this.
Am I supposed to feel bad because a corporation that can shell out billions of dollars for broadcast rights might not get the match-up that would allow them to recoup that money as fast as they'd like by charging beer distributors, auto manufacturers and fast food franchises the highest ad rates? Am I supposed to feel bad that my team doesn't exist for the sole purpose of being a sparring partner for teams in a small handful of other cities? Why should I, as a sports fan, care about any of that stuff? Why should any sports fan care about that stuff?
For that matter, whatever happened to rooting for the underdog? Not that everybody should become Tampa Bay Lightning fans or even see the Lightning as being in that role (they're a 5 seed; they didn't exactly back in with a losing record). But teams who are in good standing in the league (paid their franchise fees, attend all the meetings, etc.) that don't play in one of the larger cities shouldn't feel obligated to apologize for being successful, under any cirsumstances, and neither should their fans.
Call me old-fashioned but I'm too busy worrying about actual hockey injuries to Simon Gagne and Pavel Kubina to care about the possible hurt feelings of some television executive I've never even heard of. Lightning coach Guy Boucher has made frequent references to David and Goliath while his squad has advanced through the playoffs.
But all David had to worry about was slaying a giant, not Nielsen ratings and ad revenue.