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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Noise in the Forest: The NHL's Image Problem by @LCJS

Game One of the Stanley Cup Final is tomorrow. You're reading this, so I'm going to assume this is no revelation for you. You know the Pens will face the Sharks in a best-of-7 series where the "WizardOfCroz" and "TheIncredibleMalk" will try to out-pace a more sizable opponent, just as it was in the series against the Washington Capitals.

I suppose your question now must be:

Well, I'm blathering about ESPN (in particular) in its brethren not giving the NHL the coverage NHL fans think the NHL deserves.

Here is a screenshot of ESPN's front page taken today (5/29/16) at roughly 11AM:

As you scan the image, note that only two posts about hockey appear; and note their location. The vast majority of their coverage is NBA, followed by MLB, NFL and NCAA football (which are not doing anything in particular right now) Indy car racing, lacross, soccer, NCAA women's softball, tennis...

They do cover hockey eventually... kinda: (Big Ben's newborn rocks Penguins onesie, Steelers celebrate Cup run). ESPN is an easy scapegoat, but the real culprit here is the NHL itself.

From the Winter Classic, Heritage Classic, and Stadium Series to reality tv shows; the league is always looking for ways to promote itself. The current signage around the Consol Energy Center speaks to that. On the ice, in the stands, on electronic scoreboards and television graphics scream - STANLEY CUP FINAL - is happening.

This is the league's signature event, so it's completely expected and appropriate. However, what if the league was in the middle of the forest making all kinds of racket - and there was little media coverage?

Would the league still make an impression?

*shakes magic 8-ball*

"Ask again later."


Best Sport, Worst League

Some of the NHL's PR problem stems from its Canadian base of operations. Even if it's only in their subconscious, the idea that hockey is "Canada's game" shouldn't be ignored as playing some small role. It's human nature to favor that which is inherently your own, so US-based media spend more time on US-based sports.

In some ways, hockey is still viewed more as a novelty than a premier sport - and it's not due to actual hockey.

It's not like ESPN didn't TRY to bring the NHL into the fold, having discussions before the league decided to stay with NBC for a cool $2 BILLION. (In the league's defense, ESPN's offer was kind of a low-ball one nationally televised game per week on ESPN2, reportedly).

Instead, the league chose for greater exposure at a lesser venue. Normally, I'd say that's just part of doing business - the better deal was struck.

Or was it?

We nightly sit through Mike Milbury suggesting teams should concuss one another. We sit through Jeremy Roenick comparing the work ethic of a Stanley Cup winning team captain to a young player who was suspended by his team for not showing up.

While employing Milbury and JR is ultimately on NBC's head, what can you say about a league that tried to sabotage its own All Star game due to fans voting for John Scott? That debacle left the NHL with egg all over it's face.

Just last week, the NHL police were taking care of important business when they barred the Tampa Bay Lightning from holding a watch party for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final - depriving the fans of a communal experience and the league some good PR.

"Player Safety"

The NHL's Department of Player Safety has been perhaps their most epic failure, with zero consistency between punishments. Hits by [Player A] on [Player B] seemingly depend upon:
  • Player B's injury status
  • Player A's infraction history
  • Player A's intent - based on psychic reading
  • Player B's idiocy for skating with his head down
  • Each player's star status
  • Level of expected outrage
Mix those ingredients into a pot and PRESTO - Judgment is served.

The Fix Is In The Facts

With all of these extracurriculars going on, the NHL stumbles from event to event making itself as much the story as its product on the ice. A game full of grace and brutality, speed and power, momentum shifts and explosions of post-goal joy - someone who doesn't already know isn't going to learn about it in any real form with this dearth of coverage.

The game sells itself. The league must learn to stop tripping over its own feet. In a day and age where "clownshows" get the vast majority of media coverage due to their easily mockable nature, the NHL struggles to make noise outside of its own bubble.  Unless a new approach is taken, the league will continue to face questions about what (in the hell) it exactly thinks it's doing.

*shakes magic 8-ball*

"Better not tell you now."

I hate you, magic 8-ball.

Be sure to check out our sister site, Pittsburgh Sports Initiative

1 comment:

  1. I think you nailed this right on the head. You should also add in the fact that officiating is terrible. Try explaining to someone new to the sport how something is a penalty during the regular season, but once the playoffs start, it depends on how many penalties one team has taken, whether it will be called. Or at what time in the game it occurs!


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