Fighting the comparison between ice hockey and MMA

With any luck, the Stanley Cup final between Detroit and Pittsburg will go down in the annals of hockey lore for something besides the fact that Saturday's game got kicked right in the Nielsen ratings by the network television debut of mixed martial arts fighting on CBS.

Hockey has a history of fighting, so it was certainly no accident that CBS scheduled its exhibition to coincide with the NHL on NBC.

No doubt many, if not most, MMA fans have little interest in hockey, but CBS wagered that many, if not most, NHL fans were only interested in fighting.

CBS was wrong.

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I read on a blog by some guy named Mark Berman that 150,000 fewer people watched the Detroit-Pittsburg game than watched Saturday?s CSI rerun, and that only 10,000 more people chose hockey over mixed martial arts during the 9-11 p.m. block.

And since they only let credible and intelligent people have blogs, everything Mark Berman says must be ironclad fact, completely beyond reproach.

(Berman?s numbers had America?s Most Wanted pegged as the most popular Saturday night TV show in the country?so either Berman is friends with John Walsh or there is some truth to the rumor that Chuck Norris can watch more than one TV at a time.)

But by far the most noteworthy aspect of these Berman-reported Nielsen ratings is the fact that Berman left out: there has been a three-fold growth of the hockey-watching audience compared to last season?s comparable night, and with the potential of this Pittsburg squad to sprout into a full-fledged Gretzkyan dynasty sometime next season, there?s no reason to expect the league?s popularity to stop growing.

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The bottom line on televised sports is this: if the game is competitive and the level of skill is high, people will watch almost anything. So whatever moral objections one might raise about hiding bloodlust behind the name of ?sports? might be, there?s not much one can do to dissuade others from watching whatever happens to be on TV.

And ultimately, while the level of competition is high in professional fighting (whether boxing or mixed martial arts or in those sideshow brawls the NHL has not yet taken out of its game), fighting requires relatively little in the way of skill compared to other sports.

The fact that Kimbo Slice won strengthens my point, because there is no chance that Kimbo Slice was the most skilled fighter in the cage Saturday.

Mixed martial arts fighting is a niche sport?and while some people enjoy watching it, most do not. As far as I can tell, there is no route that MMA can take to broaden its appeal to most people.

* * *

Kimbo Slice was the biggest fighter in the fight…as was Gina Carrano…as was Brett Rogers…as was Joey Villasenor…am I missing something? Is there more to MMA than what happened Saturday?

In other news, I?m never eating cauliflower again. Ever. Ever ever.

* * *

Meanwhile, the NHL put on a fantastic display of strength and skill in a physical contest that saw exactly zero fights.

It?s not a coincidence that as the level of skill and the competitiveness of the games rises, hockey players do less fighting. Why fight if you can score a goal or draw a penalty or do anything that will give your team the advantage?

NHL hockey has been a niche sport off and on throughout its history in this country.

But unlike mixed martial arts, hockey won?t be a niche sport forever, because the only thing keeping the NHL from broadening its appeal is its lack of commitment to showing off the best of the game of hockey.

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