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Fans wonder, 'Why go to the park when it looks better on TV?'

Ice hockey has a reputation for televising poorly. "You can't see the puck!" the fans cry. Even ESPN, which buys up the rights to every sport this side of musical chairs, let the National Hockey League go. So what's happened? NHL ratings have soared, and the league just signed a new contract with Comcast, doubling its previous figure.

Professional sports are simply more popular than ever on television. Last fall, the National Football League, which was already the surest must-see thing on TV since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, suddenly, unexpectedly saw its ratings jump into the ozone layer. NASCAR, which had been slumping, is rebounding. The NBA ratings have skyrocketed. More and more Americans are even watching -- yes -- European soccer.

Now maybe it's all anecdotal, a temporary spike. It's been a brutal winter in most of the country, and gas prices are high, so maybe more people are staying home -- and you can only watch so much American Idol.

But I'm convinced it's a much more significant trend, fostered by two factors. First, prices to many sporting events are just too expensive. Second, as home television sets get larger and clearer in definition -- even 3-D -- people are more inclined to watch a game there in the family room, where they can see it free, and big and better, and in more comfortable surroundings.

It's surely illustrative that during this same period when sports ratings are up, the box office for movie theaters has plummeted. Sure, maybe Hollywood is just in a creative slump, but I find it revealing that a group of the most prominent film directors and producers wrote an open letter to four studios, pleading with them not to go ahead with new plans to release films to video so soon after their theatrical openings. With today's monster-screen HDTV, if iyou give viewers -- movies or sports -- an option, they'll opt for the couch near the refrigerator at home.

Attendance figures at sporting events are invariably suspect because teams announce the number of tickets sold, not those actually used. But now, especially when the weather's dicey, you see the best seats as only that -- seats. When attendance was bad, the old gag used to be, "A lot of fans came dressed as empty seats tonight." Now it's more like, "A lot of ticket buyers dressed in their pajamas tonight."

I even wonder how sports bars are doing these days. Watch the game at home, you don't even need a designated driver.

Here's an anecdote that says it all. A longtime New York Rangers season-ticket holder got his bill for the first round of the playoffs. Instead of buying the overpriced seats, he went out and, for even less money, he bought a humongous new 3-D, HDTV.

And guess what: He could see the puck even better than he ever did at Madison Square Garden.

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