After spending the better part of the NBA playoffs bemoaning the state of modern basketball while talking up his long-standing love of hockey, TNT analyst Charles Barkley on Monday night continued to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final -- often at the expense of pro hoops.
Sitting in with NBC announcers Liam McHugh and Mike Milbury during the second intermission of Game 4 of the Predators-Penguins series, Barkley threw shade at the NBA while heaping praise on the NHL. "I'm just glad to be here because the NBA playoffs have not been great, while the Stanley Cup playoffs have been amazing," Barkley said.
Barkley's assessment seemed to puzzle Milbury, who wondered if the NBA Hall of Famer shouldn't perhaps be a bit more cautious about criticizing the league that accounts for his livelihood. "What's the matter with you, talking about the NBA playoffs?" Milbury cracked. "Don't you get a paycheck for talking about that in a nice way?"
The voluble Barkley shrugged it off. "Well first of all, they can't fire me," he said, adding that a clause in his contract with Turner Sports effectively makes any sort of early dismissal a decidedly pricey proposition. "No, they gotta pay me. That's why I signed a long-term deal."
In a wholly unrelated aside, Barkley went on to say that he hoped that his friend, NBC hockey analyst Jeremy Roenick, would be eaten by an alligator.
In what amounted to a mini media barnstorming tour, Barkley continued to fire off his characteristic filter-free observations throughout the night. During a postgame interview taped for ESPN's "SportsCenter," Sir Charles called ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose the "best analyst on television." Of course, Barkley being Barkley, he then proceeded to spike the compliment with another dram of anti-NBA sentiment. "You don't have to deal with those wussies in the NBA," Barkley said. "They get so mad when you don't kiss their ass all the time."
Earlier in the night, Barkley crashed a press conference featuring hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who was on hand to announce that his 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers had been voted the greatest franchise in NHL history by the league's fans.
After Gretzky introduced Barkley as "the biggest hockey fan in North America," the broadcaster launched into another good news/bad news routine. "The playoffs in hockey have been amazing," he said. "You know, obviously, I'm not breaking earth-shattering news -- our NBA playoffs have not been very good. The best thing about my job is that for two straight months I'm in a room with about 20 televisions, and I watch pretty much every single hockey game. We've only had four games in the NBA playoffs that [were decided] by less than double-digit [margins]. And so it's not been a lot of fun broadcasting games this year."
Barkley's enthusiasm for hockey stems from his time with the Sixers, when he became a Philadelphia Fliers fanatic. His advocacy has been so elevated throughout the spring that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman personally invited him to Game 4 to thank him for promoting the sport.
"There is nothing more nerve-wracking than Stanley Cup overtime hockey," Barkley said. "It's the craziest thing you're ever going to see. That's one of the reasons I just love the sport."
If Barkley's enthusiasm may not necessarily be shared by his employers at Turner Sports -- not only did he repeatedly praise the NHL at the expense of TNT's league partner, but he did so on NBC, ESPN and the NHL Network -- it's not as if his one-man media blitz is going to get him into any hot water. Turner boss David Levy is a such a huge fan of Barkley that he trekked all the way out to the broadcaster's Scottsdale, Ariz., home when it came time to re-up his "NBA on TNT" contract.
As Barkley told Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch, all it took for Levy to convince Barkley to draw up another long-term deal with Turner was a couple bottles of expensive tequila, a few bottles of fine wine and a round of golf. (Such is the tenor of the relationship that Barkley's agent wasn't consulted until after he'd already agreed to re-up with Turner.)
Whether Charles Barkley's NHL marketing blitz will help convert basketball diehards to hockey fans remains to be seen, but thus far the Predators-Penguins series has put up significantly higher ratings than the year-ago Stanley Cup Final. Through the first four games, two of which aired on the cable network NBCSN, the NHL title tilt is averaging 4.16 million viewers, up 22% compared to last year's analogous 3.4 million, while delivering a 2.4 household rating, which marks a 26% improvement compared to a 1.9.
Last year's Stanley Cup Final now stands as the lowest-rated series since the NHL returned to NBC 12 years ago.
Of course, in the absence of one of the NHL's four domestic Original Six franchises (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York), the Stanley Cup ratings can only rise so high. The Predators-Penguins ratings are down 17% compared to the first four games of the 2015 championship series, when Chicago squared off against Tampa Bay, and are off 20% versus the 2013 Chicago-Boston marathon. (Three of the first four games of that Blackhawks-Bruins series were decided in overtime, and Game 1 was a triple-overtime affair.)
Oddly enough, the relative media market size of the participating teams doesn't seem to make much of an impact on Stanley Cup ratings. With 1.16 million TV households, Pittsburgh is the nation's 23rd largest DMA, while Nashville is No. 29 (1.01 million), and yet ratings for this year's series are down only 8% compared to the Rangers-Kings showdown in 2014. That New York-Los Angeles matchup pitted the No. 1 DMA against the No. 2 market. (Boasting a combined 12.8 million TV homes, New York and L.A. together account for 11.2% of all U.S. TV households.)
By comparison, for what it's worth, the first two games of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors title tilt delivered an average audience north of 19 million viewers.
The action resumes Thursday night on NBC, as both squads travel back to Pittsburgh for Game 5. With the series tied at two games apiece, NBC is guaranteed a six-game set at the very least. Game 6 is set to air on Sunday night; should the series require a seventh game, NBC will broadcast it on Wednesday, June 14.