Friday, 25 January 2019

Moving The Goalposts

Make no mistake that the women showed up and nearly stole the show tonight at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition. Kendall Coyne absolutely lit the ice on fire with her lap in the Fastest Skater event. Brianna Decker only went out and won the Precision Passer event. Rebecca Johnston demonstrated the hands needed in the Puck Control event. Renata Fast blew up targets in the Accuracy Shooting event. Yes, the women can play. But you already knew that. In fact, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you're very aware that these are four of the best hockey players on the planet. So why am I writing about goalposts moving?

The women's hockey writers were all over social media tonight with their usual anger towards the NHL world in that more people should be watching the women's game. I don't disagree that more people should be supporting women's hockey with their butts in seats,
merchandise on their backs, eyes on their TVs, and more. I have been a long supporter of women's hockey, and I truly believe the game is more akin to Olympic hockey with speed and skill being the highlights, and I'll take that to the grave as my reason for spending so much time watching the women's product.

Here's the thing, though: the NHL is in San Jose this weekend to promote THEIR product. The invitation to the women this season followed last year's invitation of Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel, Meghan Duggan, and Hannah Brandt to the All-Star Game in Tampa Bay where the same boisterous social media warriors got on their soapboxes, pounded fists on chests, and screamed about how people should be watching the women's game. While Coyne and Decker arguably made this year's inclusion of the women at the Skills Competition more memorable with their performances in the events they were demonstrating, I'm going to wager a bet that you won't see an uptick in attendance at women's games nor will you see any sustained support for the game after tonight's performance.

Now you may be asking, "Teebz, if you support the women's game, how can you say that?". The reality is that the NHL All-Star Game is there to showcase players and their talents, but if you have no way to see this talent regularly or don't know how to watch this talent, you likely will forget how good these players are, ultimately forgetting how good they were this week.

Don't be angry - that's how our minds work.

There's an expression in hockey that sees teams in the Pacific time zone often using when it comes to voting on year-end awards due to the concentration of voters who live on or near the east coast of North America. This "east coast bias" term is used because most games in California start some three hours after all other games do - 10pm in most eastern markets - so the perception from the west coast is that most of the east coast has already turned off the broadcast since no one wants to stay up until 1am watching hockey.

I'm not sure this holds true with the exposure that all of the NHL gets with the broadcasting deals they have - Brent Burns won the Norris Trophy in 2017 and Drew Doughty won in 2016 - but they're the only two players who play or have played in the Pacific time zone to win the award. There has yet to be a Vezina Trophy winner from the Pacific time zone, and the only Hart Trophy winners from that time zone are Corey Perry and Joe Thornton in a year where he was traded from Boston to San Jose.

Why does this matter?

What these writers should be howling about is the fact that you can't find women's hockey anywhere on television - the single largest media influencer in today's households. The NHL? You can find it nearly anywhere in Canada thanks to Rogers broadcasting games on Sportsnet, Sportsnet360, CityTV, and CBC. You can see men's hockey on TSN thanks to the World Junior Championship, the Spengler Cup, the World Championship, a handful of NCAA games, the RBC Cup, and a handful of other Hockey Canada-supported events. Men's hockey is everywhere in Canada, and it's why it dominates most highlight shows and sports newscasts.

You know what isn't everywhere in Canada? You get three guesses.

If you guessed "women's hockey on TV", you'd be a winner. Sportsnet makes it seem like they're doing the world a favour when it comes to broadcasting four regular season games, the CWHL All-Star Game, and the Clarkson Cup Final. Sportsnet owns the rights to U SPORTS broadcasting and will show the U SPORTS Men's National Hockey Championship, but doesn't even bother to send a reporter to the Women's National Hockey Championship.

You know why you're all talking about Kendall Coyne's incredible lap today? Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon. Had MacKinnon not been injured, Coyne would have likely been relegated to the commercial break where she'd demonstrate how the lap around the rink would work before the cameras came back to watch the men do their best. But MacKinnon, who is a student of the game, knew there was someone who likely could hold her own when it came to speed in the rink. MacKinnon reached out to Coyne via Twitter and asked the speedy American star if she'd take his spot in the event.

And did she ever!
But let's pump the breaks here because had the Skills Competition gone down according to the NHL's plans, Coyne's lap would have only been seen by those in attendance in San Jose. The fact that both NBC and Sportsnet captured her lap was because she was in MacKinnon's spot as one of the actual competitors in the Fastest Skater event.

See the irony?

The NHL wasn't holding her back from showing off her wheels. They're trying to market their stars in their event. That's just Marketing 101, and I can't fault the NHL for making the NHL All-Star Game about the NHL and its stars.

I can fault NBC and Sportsnet, though, for opting to not show the women demonstrating the skills to the public not sitting inside the SAP Center. The problem, however, goes to a larger issues within women's hockey, and that's exposure on television. Half a dozen games broadcast on TV, some YouTube games, and grainy highlights posted on social media won't get the exposure that the women's game desperately needs to become a mainstay on sports highlight shows.

"What are the answers, Teebz?" you ask. Well, the first step is to follow that whole "one league" dream that everyone keeps demanding, but only two people can solve. Once that happens, this new Women's National Hockey League can fall under the NHL's watch, and I would hope that they would include a weekly televised game in both the Canada and the US on the NHL's national media partners in Sportsnet and NBC.

The enemy of the women's game right now isn't the NHL or men's hockey or men or the apathy that most hockey fans show when it comes to women's hockey. Hockey Canada and USA Hockey have done their parts in making the World Championships and the Olympics must-watch TV when it comes to women's hockey, but they can't run weekly tournaments. That comes down to the two women's professional leagues, and the fact that they have no national media partner who broadcasts games regularly is the major reason why people didn't know that Kendall Coyne was one of the fastest humans on the planet before tonight.

In states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, women's hockey is hugely popular because it gets its fair share of coverage locally with some regularity. Women's hockey has long been beating the drum about "you can't be what you can't see". Those are the goalposts onto which women's hockey writers should have their crosshairs fixed, and it starts with demanding that the professional women's leagues either come together to become a stronger product or by having each of the leagues going out to find a national broadcast partner.

If you recall, the NHL was once mocked for putting games on the OLN network. The NHL worked through this to prove its product was a viable entity, and they've since been able to sign bigger and more lucrative deals in the United States by continuing to deliver ratings and advertising dollars to its partners. It didn't start with an NBC deal, though, and that's what the leagues and writers need to realize.

Time slots on Sportsnet and NBC Sports are expensive. The networks are there to make money, and the women's game simply can't provide the same monetary return as other sports at this time just as the NHL couldn't provide the same return in 2005 when they signed with OLN. This is simply the reality of where the sport is on the sporting landscape right now, and it's a harsh reality that one needs to accept if this sport is ever to move forward.

The lack of television broadcasts are the answer to "why isn't this sport more popular". The only way to fix that is to find a way onto television regularly. I'm not a television executive by any means, but I suspect that if the leagues could likely find a somewhat-obscure network to take a chance on one or both of them, then popularity of the women's game will grow by leaps and bounds as the die-hard fans turn casual fans into more dedicated fans and so on and so forth. Y'know, kind of similar to how the NHL grew in non-traditional markets in the sunbelt with local broadcasts and a national deal with an obscure television network.

The goalposts need to be moved. This would certainly change the playing field if a television deal was struck. This is entirely what the women's hockey writers who are screaming about Kendall Coyne's performance tonight should be asking their leagues to investigate.

If the problem with women's hockey is that no one is watching, it's time to get onto the medium that most people watch.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: