Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What the NHL could learn from the Blackhawks regarding broadcasting, and a few other thoughts on hockey coverage

The skyrocketing ascention of the Blackhawks has a lot of factors that fed into it: a careful compilation of talent, successful seasons, and a very good chance to win the Stanley Cup.

But perhaps the best thing that ever happened to the team in the past five years was when Rocky Wirtz took over the team in 2007 when his father, Bill Wirtz, passed away. While on the surface that may sound harsh, the hard reality was this: in a tech-savvy world, in a sports-insane city, Blackhawks fans could not watch their home team on home ice without paying to go to a game.

Let's face reality:

1. Arenas are only so big. Even the UC, with one of the largest capacities in the NHL, seats approximately 19,700 and has standing room for another 2,700+. Unless you think your fanbase caps at 22,500 people, you need to find ways to reach more fans.

2. We're still living in a recession, and so for a lot of people, even the "cheap seats" or "standing room only" prices of $25-50+ (depending on market) are not going to be everyday purchases. Add into that the costs of parking, food/drink, and anything else you might put money out for, and it's just not all that realistic to expect every fan will make it to a game.

2a. We'll leave the discussion of how expensive it is to be a hockey fan otherwise (t-shirts, sweaters, etc) for another day, but that is worth noting as well.

3. Today's sports fans are incredibly tech-savvy, and they want immediate access to team content online, including sharable content. The NHL has worked hard in this department and have been successful at it.

So one of the best things Rocky did for the Blackhawks was the immediate decision to overturn his father's long-held philosophy of NOT broadcasting home games in the home market. Even without the hockey lockout of 2004-05, being a Blackhawks fan in the mid-2000s was a tough experience. The cavernous UC was half-full on a good night, and although you could walk up on game day and get cheap seats for under $10, there just wasn't a lot of energy in the building. Bill Wirtz's idea was that if fans couldn't see the game on TV, they'd come to the rink - and nothing could be further from the truth.

Any professional sport builds its fan base through TV these days. Games like basketball and baseball have it easier, because they are inexpensive to play and therefore people grow up participating in them through school first, so a personal enjoyment of the sport leads directly to fandom. Hockey is a unique sport in that it probably has the smallest percentage of fans who actually play the sport, outside of perhaps horse racing, because it's an expensive sport to learn how to play and excel at. (Also, when's the last time you walked outside in say, Miami, and found an ice rink? Not very often, I'd warrant.)

The Blackhawks partnered with Comcast in the local market. It was a logical choice; the Wirtz family own part of Comcast. But the best part of Comcast is that it's generally carried on most cable providers' extended basic packages. So if you get stations like Food TV, HGTV, etc., you probably have a large enough cable package that you're getting Comcast Sports Net too.

As the Blackhawks scoreboard video says, "Hockey never left Chicago. But it certainly has returned."  Providing home games on local television has been a strong part of that resurgance. If you have to hunt and peck to find hockey on TV, and you're not certain if the games are broadcast in your market, it becomes a chore. If you're at home or out at a local bar and catch some hockey on TV, you're more inclined to develop an interest in the game. If you develop an interest, then you're more likely to put out money on supporting the team, whether it is simply buying team gear, or putting out the money to go see a game.

Rocky Wirtz knows that. It's a shame his dad didn't.

Once hockey began being regularly broadcast in Chicago - CSN's coverage has been pretty good, and Pat Foley is just a delight as a play-by-play announcer - the fans came back. In droves. So much for "deny them TV coverage, and it'll drive them to buy tickets."  If anything, it proved the opposite - the United Center has sold out for the past 100+ games.

Unfortunately for American hockey fans, hockey has always been treated as the red-headed stepchild of sports. It's taken a backseat to golf, wrestling and cycling. And, due to the fact that there's multple channels with their fingers in the pie, sometimes it's a guessing game as to which channel might be covering what game on any given day. (I have a difficult time calling any car-based sport "sports", especially in light of the recent Gulf ecodisaster. "Sports" to me require extraordinary human effort, not how hard/fast you can step on the gas pedal and burn fuel. Again, another discussion, another day.)

Even the most recent Olympics shows that. For Canadian broadcasters, there was no question: hockey is regarded as their national sport, and takes priority over all else. For the American market, finding hockey broadcasts during the Olympics was elusive, as coverage was shuffled around NBC's affiliates throughout the Games. Little wonder that American fans living in border cities like Detroit, who are fortunate enough to be able to have access to CBC as part of their basic cable, prefer CBC's coverage of hockey to any American network.

For most hockey fans, however, tuning into hockey requires laying out additional costs to their cable networks.

If you want NHL Center Ice®, you have to pay around $80 for the season. Granted, the season is almost 10 months long, so that averages around $8/month, but then consider the following: networks like Versus and the NHL Network aren't in all "extended basic" cable networks. If you live the right markets, you can pay an extra $20/month and get "premiere" networks, and perhaps spend a lot of money for a lot of channels you don't watch to get the ones you do want; or, you can pony up less (say, $7-8/mo) for a "sports pack", which will bundle in all the specialty sports channels like Versus, NHL Network, Fuel TV, NFL Network, G4, etc. There is no choice for a consumer to pick and choose sports programs a la carte.

Now, I have zero interest in watching golf, tennis or football on my TV, but I have to pay for them as part of the "premiere sports pack" in order to get my hockey TV. And as much as I would really enjoy getting Center Ice®, my choices comes down to these: pay an extra $7/month for the "sports pack" including Versus and NHL, or $8/month for Center Ice®, or pay $15/month and wonder how much overlap I'll see between Center Ice® and the NHL Network.

Versus has certainly made its mark on hockey the past couple of years, but it's kind of an odd fit. Formerly known as OLN, the Outdoor Life Network, Versus carries what they brand as "alternative sports coverage", including sports like bull riding, World Extreme Cagefighting, hunting and fishing. I'm always a little startled when I turn to Versus and find WEC going on.

Here's my view as a hockey fan: I don't want to have to pay money that supports a lot of other sports that I could care less about, in order to see and support the one sport I am deeply and truly passionate about. I also want the coverage of my sport to be thorough, knowledgeable, and well-done.

In short, I wish I got CBC on my local cable provider, but since that's not probably not going to happen any time soon, I'll need to make due with what I've got - or am given.

Here's my view on the best "win-win" situation for hockey fans: a comprehensive, multi-station NHL network, a la ESPN, but hockey-centric.

Obviously, you get a good base between NHL Network and Center Ice, but you start with NHL Network being offered on the same level of cable as ESPN (basic extended cable), and have that be your primary station to attract viewers: your "game of the night" choices, analysis, etc.

But then you could have further channels as part of a full,  "Extended NHL package":
- NHL Classic (hockey history, old games, etc)
- NHL-U (college, high school, and draft coverage, as well as training shows and hockey education)
- NHL Center Ice (hockey on demand coverage as per current Center Ice structure)

I'd be ok with paying $5-8/month for a full, complete, extended package of JUST hockey, versus paying $7-15/month for 2 channels I do want, plus 9 channels I don't, IF I could at least get NHL Network in my extended basic. 

The face of the NHL fanbase is slowly but surely changing. In Canada, it's practically a given that you're a hockey fan. In the US, hockey is more popular in Northern states, for all the obvious reasons. But it has been proven that Southern markets - about as unexpected of markets as could be dreamed up, such as Phoenix, Tampa and Nashville - can not only support a hockey team, but demand that they be kept in the market. (Look at the Phoenix Coyotes.) Heck, the greater Los Anglees area supports not just one but two hockey teams - the Kings and the Ducks.

To build your fan base, you've got to be clever with your marketing. The simplest form of marketing it to make sure that your product has a place in the largest possile pool. You can then sell a further specialized product once you've drawn them in. 

By making it difficult, challenging or expensive to find hockey on TV with any consistency is the fastest way to alienate fans, both old and new alike. In the case of the people you hope to attract and retain most - the casual fans, the new fans - you need to make it as easy as possible for them to find your product. This doesn't mean dumbing down your product; simply making it easy to find and readily accessible.

For your established fans, it's the consistency and quality of coverage that matters most. Nobody likes to hunt and peck through channels for coverage, especially the guy who just arrived home late from work and is desperate to turn the game on.

Hockey fans know their game, and want to see commentators and analysts who know what the heck they're talking about. Knowing how tied in and invested the fan base is with its sport, the NHL could also stand to do some research with its fans and find out their opinions of existing coverage.

A few examples:

- Personable rookie broadcaster Kevin Weekes, who is  a color commentator for Hockey Night in Canada and a studio analyst for NHL on the Fly, is rapidly becoming a popular new face for hockey broadcasting. Weekes spent 13 years in the NHL as a goaltender, retiring in 2009, so he is not only familiar with a lot of active players in the league, but gives a new and different perspective to the ice, as most hockey players-turned-broadcasters played forward or defensive positions. Additionally, players just seem more comfortable around him as an interviewer, probably because of his own experience with the league.

- On the flip side is Pierre McGuire, who started off playing pro hockey in Europe, and then had a career in scouting and coaching (including winning two Stanley Cups with the Penguins in the early 1990s) before going into broadcasting in 1997. Although he does have good insights for time to time, if you read fans opinions of him through social media (Twitter, etc), he's regarded as annoying, among other things.

- Popular opinion about American female sportscasters is that they're on display for T&A instead of in-depth analysis or commentary. By selling female sportscasters for their physical assets and attributes instead of what they bring to the table as personalities, it's doing a double disservice to the fans, especially to the growing legion of female sports fans who not only are frustrated to be treated as "cute" for liking sports, but who can frequently discuss the finer points of their sport of choice better than a lot of guys can. One of my favorite things about the Blackhawks vs. Canucks series in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs was discovering Kristin Reid, a Canadian broadcaster who showed what a decent female sportscaster should look like. While Ms. Reid certainly qualifies as attractive, it was refreshing to see a female sportscaster who was not groomed/dressed to show off her boobs, and who could discuss and analyze hockey in-depth. By continuing to support the idea that female sports reporters must look like Brittney Spears-wannabes, it doesn't help the women who are trying to gain respect as legitimate reporters, and it doesn't help female sports fans.

The Blackhawks used a smart approach to television and marketing, employing highly likeable sportscasters, and understanding their market and approaching them in a way that has created a huge resurgance in the fan base. The NHL - and individual teams in need of attracting more fans - can learn a lot from what Chicago achieved in the past four years.

1 comment:

  1. Holy crap, woman! Where'd you see you can get Center Ice for $80? I paid $145 out here in San Diego this year!!!


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