Hockey fans across the country observed a collective moment of silence on Wednesday as ESPN announced 100 layoffs to some of their best employees. Notably, Pierre LeBrun, Joe McDonald, and Scott Burnside were told that their services were no longer needed by the “Worldwide Leader.” These gentlemen represent some of the finest hockey writers and contributors in the sport and essentially leaves ESPN’s hockey cupboard bare, Barry Melrose notwithstanding. Also in limbo is the contract status of “Cawlidge Hawkey” cult hero, John Buccigross. Buccigross’ contract is up this summer, however, no word has been given on whether he will receive a new deal.
Immediately after the bloodletting of the NHL team at ESPN, the founder of our site, Joe Rozycki, had this tweet:
When you realize that your website now has more hockey coverage than ESPN……….Sad day for hockey journalism. pic.twitter.com/mgEHEFYQsm
— SinBinMavs (@SinBinMavs) April 26, 2017
Let that sink in for a moment…
So, what does this all mean for the sport of hockey in North America? On the surface, it further alienates what most already consider a niche sport. Of the four major sports leagues in the United States (NHL, NBA, MLB, and the NFL), hockey has long received the least amount of coverage. Even with its’ own network, hockey still seems to be in recovery mode from the numerous work stoppages over the years. Hockey lovers have long heard the excuses from those outside our world of sick dangles, bardowns, and stick taps: I can’t follow the puck. I thought icing was something you put on a cake. Why do they fight? What’s a powerplay? How does offsides work? And while we laugh at those novice questions, until we start to take the time to answer them is our sport going to grow or slowly slither further in obscurity? I can’t imagine my life without hockey in it, but a lot of folks, seemingly, can’t grasp having it in their life. Every time I attend a game where there is an obvious novice fan around me, I always try to initiate a conversation with them at some point and explain the game and answer their questions. Is it annoying sometimes? Maybe, but at some point, somebody did the same for each of us.
The NHL needs an image adjustment and if you’re asking what this has to do with minor league hockey; it has everything to do with our level of the sport. When the NHL thrives, people seek out their local hockey clubs to take in the product they’re exposed to on TV, regardless of what level of hockey that may be. Obviously, the NHL can’t afford to take another work stoppage. I don’t care what it takes, they have to get a new labor contract in place well before a work stoppage is even an option laid out on the table. One more stoppage in play and the NHL will find itself in further decline and one it may not be able to survive. While we may not see hockey as a niche sport, many in North America do and work stoppages further disengage an audience that is already on the fence about the legitimacy and value of our sport.
Secondly, the NHL has done a terrible job, in general, of marketing its’ stars. The new Gatorade commercial featuring Patrick Kane is brilliant (it pains me to say that as a Blues fan). It paints one of the NHL’s brightest stars in a big moment coming through in the clutch. The NHL needs a dozen more commercials similar to that. The biggest marketing opportunities for the NHL come during their amazing playoffs (the best in sports according to most) and for the Winter Classic in January. They have to continue to work to develop those two prominent opportunities to the absolute max to draw in new viewers. Once those viewers are engaged, keeping them in an ever increasing maze of entertainment options is something that people in the NHL offices make a lot more money than me to figure out. Marketing is about maintaining relevancy and it’s a problem the league has struggled to address. With an NHL season stretching nearly nine months, relevancy is difficult to maintain, but the NHL could take a page from the book of Major League Baseball by promoting the rivalry matchups in prominent marketing campaigns. Wednesday Night Rivalry on NBCSN is a start, but what would it take to get Sunday Night Rivalry on NBC?
One thing hockey, in general, has to evaluate is the cost to get in the door. When it costs a family of four $150-200 just to get in the door, the idea of getting younger fans interested in the game becomes exponentially harder. Beyond the cost to watch a game, the cost to play the game is an ever-increasing concern in areas across the country that are trying to grow the game at the younger levels. In the Kansas City market, there are plans being developed to get more sheets of ice available in order to grow the game. However, the cost to operate those sheets of ice is concerning for families that have multiple children interested in playing. By the time you figure in the cost of equipment, travel, and ice time, most parents are staring a second mortgage right in the face.
It was written many times on social media Wednesday that the most pressing issue that caused the ESPN layoffs was the network’s inability to admit that fans in all sports are taking in sports in ways other than cable TV. In other words, ESPN’s business model is essentially broken and ineffective in an era when NFL games are streamed on Twitter, Major League Baseball offers online streaming of your home team’s games, and the market is oversaturated with college football and basketball. Unfortunately, ESPN was forced to make some tough decisions regarding talent that most of us are familiar with and seemingly the brunt of it impacted our sport of hockey. It made me think of the ways that I take in sports these days. I still do most of my viewing on television, but I’ve always got my phone handy to watch my Twitter feed or my Facebook page throughout the game. Fan interaction is at an all-time high, but how do we develop marketing schemes to capitalize on that? It’s uncharted territory and one that teams in all sports are still developing.
What I do know is that hockey is still the most exciting sport on the face of the earth and while I enjoy watching other sports, hockey brings me to the edge of my seat unlike any other. Hockey has some tough hurdles in front of it (as does ESPN), but in the end, the optimal result is that the game grows and develops in areas it is currently in and moves into areas where it currently is not.
One thing I know is that The Sin Bin isn’t going anywhere and we’ll continue to bring you the absolute best minor league hockey coverage in the country.