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June 7, 2007
How to Make the Media Cup Crazy
The Ducks have won the Stanley Cup, but how many mainstream American media outlets even noticed? TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski speaks with some newspaper editors about hockey coverage and reveals his plan for NHL media domination.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Please grab onto the nearest immovable object, something that could steady your fall should your heart flat-line upon reading the following:

The night the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup, hockey was the lead story on ESPN's SportsCenter.

That's right: No Pronger elbows or Simon baseball swings or prolonged labor disputes – just one solid hockey team winning the ultimate prize.

The Ducks were a great story with great storylines, from the Brothers Niedermayer to Teemu Selanne's first taste of glory to J.S. Giguere's emotional rollercoaster off the ice. These are the types of human interest stories that cross over from hockey's conversational circles and into the mainstream, enticing previously apathetic sports fans into checking out the NHL's climatic playoff round.

Unfortunately, there's been no one to tell them.

As the Associated Press reported, out of 21 markets in the U.S. with NHL teams only nine were represented at any of the first three games of the Stanley Cup Finals this season; that includes the Los Angeles market, which had to be there. Most major metropolitan newspapers are covering the Finals with AP game stories and small briefs in their round-up sections, right next to waiver wire transactions and sailing news.

To call this coverage pathetic would be an insult to the last decade of Chicago Blackhawks hockey. No profiles, no notebooks, no inside info from well-schooled beat writers — just the same AP game stories that can be found on AOL Sports five minutes after the game ends. And if one of the stud general sports columnists does find the time to opine about the NHL, it was undoubtedly another boring laundry list about why the league is a broken mess and why the masses are apathetic towards hockey on television. None of them know how to actually break down a series or cover the sport, so they turn the NHL into a puck piñata and start whacking away. We know the score, we've heard it all before...

 

So has Gary Bettman, which is why his comments about print media coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals weren't surprising. The commissioner of a league starving for attention isn't going to take the knives out on media that aren't giving it any, so he focused on the root of this lack of coverage:

"The newspaper industry is in a very challenging period," he said. "Editors, particularly sports editors, are looking to cut expenses every way they can. We are in changing and challenging times."

The question now becomes whether the league is willing to change with them.

I contacted two sports editors in NHL cities — Nick Pugliese of the Tampa Tribune and Howard J. Smith of The Buffalo News — whose newspapers have not staffed an entire Stanley Cup Finals series in either of the last two years. My initial motivation was to ask if having "small market" Canadian teams in the Finals against "non-glamour" American franchises in the last three championship series affected their decision to not staff this year's Final. According to both of these newspaper men, their decisions have less to do with the "who" than the "where and how."

"We are not covering the whole series and didn't staff any games last year for the following reasons: Money," said Smith in an e-mail. "To fly from Buffalo to Anaheim, to Ottawa, back to Anaheim, back to Ottawa, back to Anaheim and back to Buffalo is prohibitive. Way too expensive, especially making reservations on short notice. Not gonna happen."

Pugliese agreed.

"The only way we would have staffed the Finals is if the Lightning made it or a team located in the Southeast, making the travel a bit cheaper. Major markets [being involved] would not have swayed us," he said via e-mail.

Both of the editors proposed the same solution: That the NHL should consider implementing a 2-3-2 series format to reduce travel costs. Not exactly a revolutionary change for the league, considering that just 13 years ago the NHL allowed Central and Pacific Division teams to opt for that format in earlier rounds to reduce travel.

Pugliese also suggested the league consider buying charters for the media to get reporters from game-to-game. (Hey, why not use some of those salary cap savings!)

Smith would like to see not only the format change but the games start earlier for the benefit of the East Coast papers.

"That would allow us to cover the games and not break the travel budget," he said. "I don't think either one is going to happen."

It’s a delicate balancing act for the NHL: appeasing the mainstream media by changing the format, look or feel of the game. Sometimes you end up with legalized two-line passes and cameras inside the goal cages; other times you get a cartoon comet tail on the end of a glowing puck.

But there are different ways to appease and attract the media to your product. One way is to bring the coverage to them, like a youth soccer coach who calls in his team's scores to the local weekly. The NHL has done some of that this post-season, with conference calls and interview notes and other outreach to media not in attendance for the playoffs.

It's worked to a point, but it's not nearly enough. I think Pugliese's onto something: Start with paying for media charter flights, and then go 10 steps further and turn the Stanley Cup Finals into an all-out Hollywood-style press junket.

Do you think entertainment reporters seriously want to write about the latest Tim Allen film? Do you think there's an audience clamoring for coverage of the live-action "Underdog: The Movie?" Of course not. But the slickest marketing minds in the business get positive coverage for their products by hopelessly pandering to the media — and sometimes even paying their way.

If I'm the NHL, I'm flying in a few writers — the hockey guy, a features guy and at least one big stud columnist — from every major metropolitan newspaper that isnt covering the Stanley Cup Finals. I'm putting them up in a great hotel, and giving them a tote bag full of food, booze and hockey swag that'll make them the envy of the newsroom. ("Hey, check it out Tony — I have my own Ottawa Senators jersey with 'Wilbon' on the back!") I may do this before the series, or I may do this during the "three" of the 2-3-2 format.

I'm making every single player, coach, executive, girlfriend and mascot available to them in a press junket throughout the series — giving these general columnists human interest stories and conveying in a basic, Hockey 101 way what might happen over the course of the next several games. I'm bringing in every hockey-friendly celebrity to rub shoulders with the media masses, from Jack Bauer to Rod Tidwell to the future Mrs. Sean Avery. I'm doing every single whore-riffic thing I can to try and get the Stanley Cup Finals covered in an in-depth way inside major American newspapers, and I'm sparing no expense.

Oh, but what about those papers that are already covering the Finals, or those smaller dailies that will feel spurned by this bias towards the big boys? I think they'll understand; it's not like entertainment companies haven't been bending over for the New York Times and the Washington Post since Christ walked the Earth.

I'm not saying this is a guaranteed cure-all — I'm pretty sure those Tim Allen movies still get royally shredded by critics even if there's a fabulous press junket involved. I'm saying the league should try this for the next few years, as the NHL continues to rebuild after the lockout washed away its sand castle; if it doesn't result in better, more sustained coverage, reconsider the tactic.

Hopefully, the coverage will have helped create the only thing sports editors pay attention to: an audience that's asking for more of it.

Fly 'em in. Foot the bill. Wine them. Dine them. And if the coverage still stinks, never mind them.
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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