Monday, 12 March 2018

Equal Coverage?

It's a weird thing to be told that the broadcasting rights belong to a major corporation, but that one is still allowed to broadcast because there hadn't been any contact with said corporation. As you may be aware from yesterday's edition of The Rundown, 101.5 UMFM, the University of Manitoba's campus and community radio station, will be broadcasting Manitoba Bisons games via radio at the U SPORTS National Women's Ice Hockey Championship later this week despite Rogers Sportsnet owning the broadcast rights via their agreement with U SPORTS. After doing a little digging, it turns out that we're able to broadcast the game because Sportsnet opted not to be in London, Ontario to cover the women's tournament, opting instead to travel to the University of New Brunswick to air both the men's semi-final games and the final at the U SPORTS National Men's Ice Hockey Championship.

Let that sink in for a moment: Sportsnet, based in Toronto, will travel to New Brunswick to broadcast the men, but not send a crew some 200km southwest to cover the women's tournament. After just having the Olympic women's gold medal game go down as one of the best in history for all of hockey, Sportsnet has decided that they won't send a crew to London to cover a tournament to which they own the broadcast rights that features the best women's university hockey programs. Something seems wrong with that picture.

How, you ask, do I know Sportsnet won't be there? I checked their broadcast schedule. Not one women's hockey game scheduled this weekend. Not a U SPORTS game, not a professional game, not a single second of women's hockey appears on their schedule. There is U SPORTS men's hockey so that's a step in the right direction in terms of promoting and supporting the U SPORTS level of hockey, but to exclude the women's tournament from broadcast coverage entirely when it's literally down the road from Sportsnet seems a little shortsighted.

I realize this article may come across as a "what about me?" or "please like my sport" plea for attention, but I assure you it's not that at all. Instead, it's a call to arms for all passionate U SPORTS fans to demand some actual coverage from mainstream national media. Don't get me wrong - there is solid coverage in cities like Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Regina when it comes to their U SPORTS teams, but there is barely a word spoken about the Bisons in Winnipeg unless they're heading to a major championship. I'll give Russ Hobson of GlobalTV in Winnipeg some kudos as he often finds a way to mention the Bisons on his broadcasts, but he may be the sole exception in Winnipeg.

Why is this? Can someone tell me why the highest level of amateur women's hockey that features a national tournament to determine the best of the best warrants no coverage from anything outside the respective universities that have teams playing? If Sportsnet owns the rights, why not just send a camera crew there to film games so they can run highlights on their sports highlight show broadcasts at the very least?

Canada, traditionally, has ignored U SPORTS athletes unless they do something remarkable like jump from the Canadian university ranks to the NFL. You never hear of volleyball players or field hockey players or golfers from the U SPORTS ranks on the big stages of those sports unless it's an Olympiad and that sport is on TV. The rare mention of "Venla Hovi of the Manitoba Bisons" at this year's Olympiad caught the attention of a few, but it largely went unheralded outside of the few of us who really champion U SPORTS athletes and, in particular, female U SPORTS athletes.

We saw an outstanding response to pleas for attendance combined with a media blitz by the players to draw the largest crowd in Wayne Fleming Arena history at 860 fans for Game Two of the Canada West Final against Saskatchewan. That's an outstanding number, and it's one that I take a lot of pride in because the game was exciting, there were seven goals scored between the two teams, and the Bisons ultimately won. It was exciting hockey, and I'm hopeful that a number of fans consider U SPORTS women's hockey as an entertainment option going forward after witnessing an outstanding game.

Team USA's shootout victory over Canada in the women's hockey gold medal game in PyeongChang ranks as the most watched late-night program in NBCSN's 15-year history. There's a monster push happening in women's professional hockey to merge the two leagues with the soaring popularity of the game south of the border. The only problem is that the mainstream national broadcasters don't seem to follow the same thinking. The NCAA has the Big Ten Network covering the Women's Frozen Four, but the men get ESPN to cover their games. Why doesn't ESPN cover both? It's not like there is significant overlap, and there's a good chance that a number of the women on these teams will be in the running for Olympic roster spots in four years whereas the men might ascend to the NHL if they catch a few breaks.

Does that reasoning make any sense at all when it comes to covering women's collegiate hockey alongside the men's tournament? Women's hockey just saw its biggest viewership ever in the history of a network, and yet the Women's Frozen Four has been relegated to an obscure cable channel?

This isn't an attack on American broadcasters either. Sportsnet broadcast just three professional women's hockey games this season, and it appears they opted out of covering the first round of the playoffs this weekend. With the women's game looking to build on the success of the Olympics, with Hilary Knight signing in the Canadian professional league, and with a number of Canadian Olympians returning to their respective teams, would this not be the most ideal time to get onboard with women's hockey? Yet this weekend will see no professional women's hockey on Sportsnet nor will it see any Canadian university hockey either.

At some point, a network has to be willing to take a chance and go all-in on a women's sports league. It's the only way to get the game to millions of people on a regular basis so that the game can see marked growth. By getting in on the ground floor, it also allows the network to help the leagues market themselves and to possibly produce additional content to provide insights on people who play the game. There literally is a win-win scenario waiting for a network to grab if someone can look past the bottom line of "women's hockey doesn't make us wheelbarrows of money". It may not yet, but it could if sports networks help to foster its growth and development.

At the end of the day, I get how business works, but for all of these networks who claim to be good corporate citizens in our communities, the efforts are falling extremely short and the rationale used to justify the lack of women's sports on television is old and tired. There has to be network executives who have daughters, nieces, wives, and sisters who have played or are playing high-level sports, but we'll never know because it's their decisions to not broadcast women's sports because it's just as profitable as men's sports. And while that may be true, I would also wager that you didn't have to spend billions to acquire the rights to women's sports, so it kinda all works out.

If Sportsnet doesn't want to send a crew to London this weekend, I can't make them. That's their decision to not use their broadcast rights despite paying for them. They'll miss out on Canada's eight best university hockey programs competing for the gold medal just as they'll miss out this weekend on the opening round of Canadian professional women's hockey. That's their choice, and who am I to tell them what to do?

But if those are the choices they're making, we have light years to go when it comes to making women's pro sports a full-time job for the women entertaining us on the ice, the court, or the pitch. And that, quite frankly, is a sad state of affairs.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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