Does Hockey Really Need TV?

By now, you’ve probably read accounts of hockey enjoying a significant spike in the sport’s television ratings recently. No doubt you also know of (and admire) hockey’s embrace of alternative media. That union has been a fusion of opportunism, technology, and desperation. Generally, it seems to be working.
Still, we’re three years into the Crosby-Ovechkin Era, and even with the promise of hockey benefitting dramatically — perhaps moreso than any other sport — from high definition television, there are durable limitations posing a serious ceiling on Television America’s embrace of our frozen game.
One is geography. Climate, while not metaphysically determinative in the matter, nonetheless plays a lead role in forging many puckheads’ attachments to the game. The other is the physical parameters and pacing at play. Football with its rectangular field, allowing many varying camera angles, and regular stops in the action, doesn’t merely allow television a foothold in its event but actually, in its modern incarnation, is determined by it. Or perhaps you’ve missed the past twenty Super Bowls.
But think about the hockey rink, which necessarily with its dasher boards shields three-and-a-half feet of action from the camera eye and many spectators seated low-in-the-bowl. Its oval, walled- and netted-in configuration just isn’t super fan friendly, relative to the playing fields and surfaces of other sports. It ever has to be so.
This week, freshly considering this reality, aware of a new and fabulous North American fascination with the untelevised World Championships, and aware of film increasingly relying on viral marketing, I wondered: just how much does hockey really need TV?
Can hockey go Cloverfield?
Something fantastically viral transpired with these Worlds. True, North American hockey hearts could welcome them into their lives as not before because of their arrival in Canada, and their being contested in North American time zones. But in Washington at least, it seemed to me that many, many more followed this tournament than in recent years past.
They were able to because of the arrival of the World Championship Sports Network. You plunked down $5 and you got about 50 world-class hockey games broadcast on your computer. On demand, too. Folks like me on regular business travel could carry our laptops along on trips and catch the Worlds in our world of airport terminals, bars Wi-Fi, or hotel rooms.
We in D.C. didn’t want to surrender high-level hockey when we were forced to last month, and when in prelude exhibition play for the Worlds word filtered out (virally) that Russia’s top line was comprised entirely of Washington Capitals, a fair number of folks in this region found a storyline they wanted to follow a bit.
In years past, I don’t recall hockey fans clogging my in-box with reactions to the Worlds they were unable to view. They couldn’t. Also in years past, if I wanted some reaction forum on the tournament I was pretty much confined to the tournament message board at hockeysfuture. This spring there was vibrant commentary on the Worlds on the Caps’ official message boards; in comments left here and on other Washington hockey blogs; and perhaps most tellingly, on the media blogs of the Caps’ beat reporters in town.
Now consider, too, the behemoth ESPN’s role in hockey’s rather robust return from its labor stoppage of a few years back. Which is: nothing. People still snicker at the agreement the NHL has with Versus, but the league’s revenues keep on growing. Somehow word is getting out about great hockey being played these days.
Moreover, hockey’s roots in the broadcast medium are with iconic, culture-defining radio personalities (Foster Hewitt) as opposed to John Madden- or Howard Cosell-type mega personalities on TV. I find that charming. And telling.
I’m still fascinated by the X-Files-like thought of Comcast one day rising up and challenging ESPN’s dominance. But if that never happens, if hockey is never accorded a seat at the broadcast dining room table by the usual suspects, is that so bad? It will always have regionalized television coverage. The league’s dedicated channel is a hit with its fans. Its universe of supporters on line grows by the week — and it appears to be broadening internationally, too — and they’re distinctly engaged. And I’m sure the league and its visionary, new media marketers like Leonsis are by no means exhausted of their ideas for broadening further sports’ fans interest in hockey.
Still, what a lovely virus we have at the moment.

This entry was posted in Hockey Night in Canada, IIHF, Media, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Radio, TV, World Championships. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Does Hockey Really Need TV?

  1. dmg says:

    The lack of coverage on ESPN hasn’t been nearly as important as people made it out to be (and some still make it out to be), in my opinion because no one takes ESPN seriously anymore.
    To me, ESPN is a bit like MTV. They started out with a real focus on sports/music, but as time progressed they became more concerned with the celebrity culture surrounding sports/music than sports/music itself (though MTV is the epitome of horrible TV now, but that’s another issue). Whereas ESPN used to have highlight packages or live events on most of the time, they now just pay lip service to that and instead focus of stupid things like the ‘Budweiser Hot Seat’ (in which no hard questions are actually asked), ‘The Ultimate Highlight’ (which is just a cross promotion with Gatorade and the music industry) and the absurd ‘Who’s More Now?’ segment. Plus, they do absurd things like blow up Steve Phillips’ already inflated ego by letting him pretend he’s the GM of the Yankees and Red Sox and holding horrible mock press conferences where the other members of Baseball Tonight lob him questions.
    The ironic thing is that hockey is experiencing more growth than any of the other major sports in the United States (I believe that the NFL is growing steadily, MLB is growth pretty well and the NBA is stagnating or losing a little popularity, but I may be wrong) and ESPN is starting to give it more coverage, pulling Don Cherry and, for the first time I can recall, airing World Championship highlights.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you, more, dmg, and your comparison of ESPN with MTV is spot on. I told Comcast’s Lisa Hillary this past season that I’d allow her to leave the Caps’ beat at Comcast for a gig at the NHL Network, but that were her departure for ESPN, our friendship would end. I think she understood.

  3. Ben says:

    I agree with all points made, dmg. The ironic thing is ESPN’s decline coincided with the NHL lock-out. During that winter of ’04-’05, you could see Sportscenter stretching to find new ways to fill the time normally devoted to NHL broadcasts and highlights. So they began to embrace the PTI-like “yakking” throughout all programming, at the cost of straight news and highlights. Of course, with no hockey to yak about, it was permanently removed from the ESPN conversation (if you can call it that).
    In 1995, you turned on Sportscenter for highlights and got them for about 85% of the program. Now I’d be shocked if that number was even %50.

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