Friday, December 27, 2013

Thoughts on ways for NHL Network to improve their content

Over on AwfulAnnouncing.com today, Steve Lepore wrote up an article about six of NHL Network's weaknesses, calling NHLN the league's "blind spot".

Some examples are pretty obvious. For example, if you compare TSN's Hockey Night in Canada's sets, graphics, and production to NHLN's own, the differences are pretty wide. No wonder that many American hockey fans wish that Canadian hockey feeds were more readily available south of the border.

He also mentioned that NHLN's on-screen talent pool needs to be deeper and better-utilized, which is also true. As a hockey fan (and not just a female hockey fan), I really enjoy seeing Kathryn Tappen on broadcasts. But why is she the only woman regularly representing the NHL on TV, when approximately 40% of the audience (and growing) is female? Quite a few of the male talents on NHLN are former hockey players - why not bring in some women who've had professional hockey experience?

Lepore pointed out that the league has a $37M profit margin on a product that:

  • is not as up-to-date looking as its competitors;
  • does not offer the most cutting-edge news for the league or its players (Canada's TSN breaks the majority of hockey news, especially when it comes to the off-season);
  • the current existing programming is boring. B-O-R-I-N-G, and that's from the viewpoint of hockey fans who would rather watch hockey than any other sport on the planet.
In addition, NHLN is not available to the majority of cable subscribers within lower-tier pricing packages. Some cable providers only start to include NHLN in their most expensive all-inclusive packages; some cable subscribers can only get it if they sign up for the CenterIce package ($169/year) or other Sports Package programming (average costs range $12-15+/month).

Maybe NHLN is trying not too compete too much with NBC/NBCSN, who carries a number of the league's games throughout the season. But it's not as if NBC/NBCSN is providing vast amounts of extraneous hockey coverage, but hockey fans can always hope.

Just imagine if NHL Network completely revamped itself.

While they're at it, as I've stated frequently in the past, they could completely overhaul NHL.com to make it easier to find news articles and video content. NHL.com's archives are vast and quite comprehensive, but incredibly time-consuming to search through. If you get too specific with your search terms, the site tells you it has no results. If you're too vague, you might receive thousands of results, with little to no way to further narrow the results down.

Gary Bettman should have sugarplum-fairy visions of dancing dollar signs dancing in his head for what spending some money revamping their "showcase" network could do for the league.

Let's look at the NHL from a business/marketing standpoint, for starters. NHL fans have not only long been recognized as the most tech-savvy among sports fans, but on average, they're also the best-educated and tend to be the wealthiest.

The female part of the fan base continues to grow as well, as stated above. It's worth repeating that when it comes to household spending, women hold about 80-85% of the spending power. (See articles from AskingSmarterQuestions.com, She-conomy.com, Time magazine, and TrendSight.com for more in-depth discussion about this.) Therefore, the NHL should definitely be doing more to attract and keep female hockey fans.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in addition to "natural" hockey partners such as beer companies, sports equipment manufacturers, and companies like Canadian Tire, the league is already able to attract strong family/female-friendly marketing partners like Geico, Kraft, Visa, Discover, Honda, Compuware, Bridgestone, and Kimberly-Clark.

But if you tune into NHLN after 11pm, you'd hardly recognize the demographic that the NHL is aiming for. Maybe it's the fault of the cable providers and not the network itself, but late-night NHLN viewers are treated to repetitive advertising for companies like FarmersOnly.com and various as-seen-on-TV "So, you've got this physical problem that you didn't know was repulsive until you saw our ad?" products.

Lepore mentioned that the NHL doesn't seem interested in improving its day-to-day or off-season programming. Even the most die-hard of hockey fans can be easily numbed by the repetitive, limited programming that the network currently offers up.

Currently, here's some examples of NHL's weekly/daily programs:

  • NHL Live (except, of course, when it's running as repeats) - described as "bringing hockey fans the latest news, notes, and buzz from around the league". We've already discussed that NHLN is not always ahead of other networks or news sources. Hockey fans should feel that tuning in to NHL Live will always mean the freshest content.
  • NHL On The Fly - billed as NHLN's "signature show", this show is meant to take you "inside the action", including highlights, "up-to-the-minute" hockey info, scores, interviews, etc. Any night that games are playing in the league, NHL On The Fly should be running mostly live all night with what's going on around the league.
  • NHL Tonight - highlights/recaps/analysis of each day's game. As Lepore pointed out, this show rarely encompasses things that might be going on in late (a.k.a. West coast) games. This show runs for an hour, and then is rebroadcast ad infinitum (or is it ad nauseum?) until NHL Live or NHL On The Fly kicks in the next day.

There's other shows like Plays of the Week, but that's just repackaging highlights from NHL Tonight.

Here's my suggestions for NHL Network to improve its offerings:

1. BROADEN DAILY OR WEEKLY HOCKEY COVERAGE PAST THE NHL


The NHL is not just about what is going on with the games and players that are currently in the NHL. Each team has its ECHL and AHL affiliates, as well as prospects spread out through various leagues across Europe, North America, and Russia. Fans are interested in these players, but it's challenging to keep up with them unless you invest hundreds of dollars - and hours - into various Internet hockey programming packages, and searching through hockey news.

NHLN should carry some games from these other leagues, especially on nights when NHL game choices are slim. Extended coverage of World Championship games, including both US and Canadian teams in particular, have increasing interest from hockey fans. Championship-round playoff games for the Calder Cup (AHL) and Kelly Cup (ECHL) trophies, KHL games, CHL games, the World Championship, Spengler Cup, and the European leagues (especially SM-liiga and the Swedish Hockey League) would all provide more interesting and comprehensive hockey coverage.

After all, these leagues are affiliate leagues with the NHL. And one of the NHL's corporate marketing partners is The Hockey News; so what makes more sense than having a general Hockey News broadcast?

Ideally, NHLN could start by broadcasting a 60-minute highlights show/newscast covering other leagues 3 times a week; and if successful, it could eventually run 5-7 times per week. The primary focus should emphasize the AHL, ECHL, and CHL, where most current NHL prospects play, but a ticker at the bottom of the screen could stream game scores and player stats. The program could be filled out with interviews and player profiles.

Leading up to the Olympics, it would be great to see some programming related to the history of hockey on the international stage, and more discussion and analysis about the international-style hockey game.

2. EDUCATE THE FANS THROUGH PROGRAMS

This expands further on the ideas in point #1. Not all hockey fans grow up with the sport; some are "late-blooming fans". But even long-time fans of the sport have plenty to learn about hockey.

Old-time games can be great to watch. But how about a weekly/biweekly show that shows highlights from particular games, and talks about the influence of that game on the sport, or a given season? Or gives additional analysis from a more modern point of view?

Some other shows that could air weekly or a few times per week, year-round:

  • Hockey Biographies : profiling players and personalities who shaped the sport. A one-hour show could be dedicated to anywhere from one to three people involved with hockey; perhaps one player, one coach, and one "other" person (broadcaster, reporter, team owner, etc) per show.

  • Hockey 101 : a weekly or biweekly, half-hour or one-hour show that discusses hockey rules, drills, nutrition, and exercises to make recreational players better, but also helps educate fans about the game and what it takes to succeed. It would be pretty cool to see somebody like Gary Roberts contribute segments to a show like this. Tie this program in with the NHL Learning Center on the NHL website.
  • Women in Hockey : a bi-monthly show about women's hockey: profiles and interviews of those who play it, those who have had an influence on the game in general, and coverage for women's hockey, especially for the Olympics, the World Championship, and the Canadian Women's Hockey League.
3. HOCKEY IS FOR EVERYONE - SO SHOW IT

Canadian hockey viewers know that that Hockey Night in Canada provides a Punjabi edition, which helps appeal to Canada's large Indian population.

So where is a Spanish-language broadcast in the US?

There are more than 38.3 million native speakers of Spanish in the US. Among the top 15 cities with the largest number of Spanish-speaking citizens, there are several NHL cities: the greater LA/Orange County (Kings, Ducks) area tops the list (over 35% of area population speaks Spanish). Other NHL cities within the top 15 are: NYC/Tri-State area (Rangers, Islanders, Devils), Miami/Ft. Lauderdale (Panthers), Chicago (Blackhawks), Dallas (Stars), Phoenix (Coyotes), Bay area (Sharks), and DC/Baltimore (Capitals).

Since NBCUniversal owns Telemundo, it would naturally make plenty of sense for the NHL's existing broadcast partner to work on producing a hockey show at least once per week. 


It is also worth noting that three of the largest Spanish-speaking population centers - Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Dallas, and Phoenix - have hockey teams that have struggled to draw fans into their buildings in markets that are more strongly dedicated to basketball, football, and college sports. Expanding hockey's reach through Spanish-language programming might help improve interest and attendance in these markets.

Additionally, NHL.com should expand their fan reach by providing a Spanish section to their website, the way that they have included sections in French, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, Czech, Slovakian, and German.

4. PROMOTE ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING PROVIDED BY TEAMS BETTER

NHLN currently carries original programming produced by various teams around the league, such as Oil Change (Oilers), Becoming Wild (MN Wild) and BHTV specials (Blackhawks). However, it is erratically scattered throughout NHLN's schedule, instead of being found in regularly-scheduled slots. Even if the only regular slots mean 2 p.m. or 1 a.m., at least make the timing consistent, and make more effort to drum up interest in the shows. Fans love these insider shows and eat them up, even if it's not their own team. (Just look at the success of 24/7.)

5. BOOST THE SIGNAL OF NHL PODCASTS BY SIMULCASTING ON NHLN

Did you know that Ken Hitchcock does a weekly podcast for NHL? How about Bobby Holik? Do you know where to find all of the league's teams' podcasts in one place? If you hunt around long enough on NHL.com, you can find the link over to their podcast directory (P.S. Not everybody is interested in subscribing to SiriusXM radio services.) Take some of that podcast material and integrate in into some live shows. 


6. BUNDLE CENTER ICE/GAMECENTER, AND PRICE IT MONTH-BY-MONTH

Not all fans are willing to cough up $169 at one go (or even $43/month for 4 months) to buy Center Ice OR GameCenter; how many fans are willing to pay for both? For those on a budget, it's easier to say, "Ok, I'm going to be paying $15-20/month" versus the idea of putting out so much money in one shot.

It would also be helpful if NHL.com could put more information on their website about broadcast regulations and explaining how/why programming blackouts occur. Fans in several areas of the country fall into grey areas between two (or sometimes more) NHL teams, and end up with blackouts on games that are supposedly "local" for their area.

And while it may be difficult to believe, not everybody owns a TV. So a fan might buy GameCenter, thinking they can use the program package to watch their local team ... but oddly enough, local broadcasts are often blacked out on GameCenter! 

Strangest of all, people who subscribe to GameCenter find themselves blacked out of games that air on NHL Network. After all, NHLN runs GameCenter - it seems incredibly odd that NHLN can't broadcast the game that is running on their own network on their own app!









There are plenty of ways that both the NHL Network and NHL.com could improve their content, but these are some starting ideas.




 

* * * * * * *
On a side note regarding GameCenter: I've been using the GameCenter app on my Droid Maxx phone which I received through the Verizon Fan Voices program. Verizon is a partner with the NHL and as a result, there's some "exclusive" content on the NHL phone app if you have Verizon as a partner.

I have been watching a lot of games via the GameCenter app lately and I'm generally very pleased by the quality of content streaming, especially when using Wi-fi. But the broadcast blackout restrictions are at times quite frustrating to me, especially when I cannot watch a local TV broadcast of a game I want to see, but it's blacked out via the GameCenter app. (The radio broadcasts are never blacked out; just the TV ones.)

Aside from that issue, I otherwise really enjoy having GameCenter and the quality of video my phone provides to watch it; but the blackouts (yay, broadcast restrictions! woowhee...) are annoying at times.


Disclosure: I am participating in the Verizon Fans Voices program
and have been provided with a wireless device (Droid Maxx) and six months
of service in exchange for my honest opinions about the product.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Open question to Reebok (and other manufacturers) about replica jerseys

There was a re-tweet that crossed my dashboard this morning that bothered me. The original poster deleted his tweet, but somebody else had captured it for posterity, so here it is: 



Yes, it was an offensive fat joke, suggesting that plus-sized people shouldn't be allowed to sport their favorite team's jersey ¹; but there's more to it than the simple lack of tact from the poster.

Several years ago, when Reebok rolled out as the new brand of the NHL, they introduced something they call "jock tags" on the lower-cost replica NHL jerseys. They even list it as a "feature" on the retail pages of shop.nhl.com and other sites. 

The jock tag is a rectangular piece of material which says "authentic jersey" at the top, with the NHL and Reebok logos below. It also says, in both English and French, "Engineered by Reebok to the exact specifications of the National Hockey League", and there's a spot where you could write your name or player number below that. The most noticeable thing about the jock tag, however, is that the jersey's size is printed in 1/2" tall type.

Why is this tag necessary at all?

Left, authentic player-used Tampa Bay Lightning practice jersey; right, replica Blackhawks fan game jersey

Now, if you see pro hockey players at practice, they do have "jock tags" on the authentic practice jerseys. Perhaps having these sizes easily displayed helps team equipment managers sort through non-personalized hockey gear more easily.  

However, these tags do not exist on the league's official in-game jerseys. 

No jock tags here ... or here ... or - nope, not here, either
The point of "replica jerseys" is that they're supposed to be a lower-cost/more affordable version of the official team jerseys - if ~$140-$160 could be considered "lower" cost. The detailing is mostly the same, but for some reason, these size tags - pardon me, jock tags - are placed on the outside of the replica jerseys, where it detracts from the aesthetics of the jersey.

Now, if you have the $330 to spend on the "authentic" team jerseys from your local fan shop, you're spared having to advertise your shirt size to the whole world. Like the genuine team jerseys, the pricier version of the jersey has no jock tag.

Reebok and the NHL are not alone on this; the NFL (Nike) has begun using these style of tags on fan replica jerseys while not using them on the field. Both of these sports do not tuck their jerseys in. 

So why did Reebok feel it was necessary to put these tags on the outside of the jerseys to begin with? 

Fans aren't interested in advertising the size of their clothing. Women often buy larger-sized jerseys than they would because they prefer or need a looser fit because of their breasts and/or hips. (Women's jerseys help with this, but not for all women.) Small-sized men may be self-conscious for having to purchase a large/XL youth jersey instead of a small adult one. Plus-sized fans of either gender surely aren't thrilled about advertising that they're 3X, 4X, or bigger.

Are there alternatives for fans? Yes, consumers could certainly take a permanent black marker and ink over the area, which they would then repeatedly have to retouch for the life of the jersey. Or they could take nail scissors and snip off the tag, but that could result in potential damage to the jersey, because the tags are sewn on very firmly, or the removed stitching could leave damage to the jersey.

Reebok also makes AHL and ECHL replica jerseys, but they don't put the jock tag on those jerseys.

Sample of non-jock-tagged jerseys: L-R: German league, Nike IIHF/Finland; Reebok AHL Checkers; Reebok ECHL Everblades; CCM LA Kings
If Reebok feels their brand isn't visible enough on the jerseys - and it's already emblazoned on the back below the collar, on one of the sleeves (and on ECHL jerseys, below the 'V' of the front collar), and inside the back collar - they could replace this tag with another embroidered manufacturer's logo that blends into the colors of the jersey.

If it is a case of wanting to prove it is an "authentic" replica and not simply some cheap knock-off, then the jock tag could still contain all the information it currently does, but just not have the size. (Or at the very least, have the font size in a far smaller, less in-your-eye type.)  

But honestly, why the need for the size (jock) tag on the outside of the jersey at all? People's size is a personal matter, and people wearing larger sizes are already subject to plenty of public judgement, scrutiny, criticism, and mockery. (As if wearing sizes on the outside of your gym clothing didn't already give you flashbacks of high school gym class...)

People of all sizes deserve to be able to wear their team's colors without having to advertise their exact size on the front. 




¹ Hockey purists can refer to them as "sweaters" if you like, but since the jerseys are no longer in fact knitted sweaters, we will refer to them as "jerseys".