Monday, July 23, 2007

Summer Hockey Headaches

Don't get me wrong. I'm an avid hockey fan. I followed the Oil Kings and Flyers as a kid growing up in Edmonton, and stayed on board as the Oilers, complete with the likes of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and Anderson, evolved from near-WHA champs to Stanley Cup champs. Over there on one of my shelves sits a prize possession: a disc copy of the recording of the five minutes of Oil King hockey that I called live on radio as a 10-year-old. It featured a goal by a guy named "Ullman," with some player by the name of "Bucyk" drawing the assist. Not a bad memoir - one goal, two hall-of-famers.

But even hockey fanatics have hockey quotas. In case you need to be reminded, the Stanley Cup playffs for the 2006-07 season ended this past June 6th, when Anaheim took out Ottawa in five games. But get this:

* Just eight days later on June 14th, the NHL handed out its post-season awards.
* Eight days after that, on June 22nd, the league held its entry draft.
* Eight days later (is there a pattern here?) with June 30th came the eve of free agency. Over the next two weeks we were inundated with reports from those who cover hockey for a living on who was headed where, for how many years, and - of course - for how many million bucks. One of the highlights of the two-week period was the announcement July 10th that Sydney Crosby had inked a new-five-year, $43.5 million extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
* On July 11th the new 2007-08 schedule was released by the NHL, highlighted by the news that the Ducks and Kings would play two opening regular season games in the hockey hot-bed of London, England, "the first teams in league history," spouted the NHL, to do so.
* As we rounded the middle of July, some sports wags actually exclaimed that a second wave of second tier free agents were about to be signed. I, for one, couldn't wait.

Now, if all of that is giving you a bit of a headache, you are starting to get my point. There was a time when we used to have seasonal sports with seasonal coverage. Hockey was for winter, baseball for the spring and summer, football for the summer and fall. Some of us laughed a bit at how soccer in a place like Britain didn't end until late May and then resumed in August - a mere three months later. (Isn't Chelsea touring the U.S right now, in late July? When do those guys take holidays?)

But the NHL also is now a nine-month sport (the training camps for 2007-08 are scheduled to begin in mid-September). The goal of this powerful hockey corporation is to keep the league on the minds of every hockey fan during the remaining three summer months of the year. The assumption is that such non-stop attention is a fairly easy sell because, after all, we are a hockey-mad country with an insatiable thirst for hocky.

However, as I have pointed out in The Boomer Factor, it's far from clear that we really are as crazy about hockey as the sports types would have us believe. I've been monitoring interest in a variety of pro sports since 1990 through the Project Canada national surveys. What I have found is that some 30% of people across the country say that they follow the NHL ("very closely" or "fairly closely," versus "not very closely" or "not closely at all"). What may come as a surprise to many people is that, for all the hype, the figure for the hockey-following public was actually higher (38%) in 1995. You hardly need to be reminded that 30% is a good distance from 100%; it also is a fan base that is top-heavy with males.

So it is that all that hockey coverage is hard to take. It also is not necessarily a good thing for some other sports, notably Canadian professional football. In the midst of the obsession with NHL developments, it's worth noting that the league that suffers the most nationally from southern Ontario's preoccupation with every off-season twitch of the NHL - the Canadian Football League - has actually experienced a modest increase in attention since 1990. Some 16% of Canadians were following the CFL back then, versus 19% now. Comparatively, in 1990, 11% of Canadians said they were following the NFL, a figure which presently stands below that of the CFL, at 13%. The current fan levels for Major League Baseball and the NBA are 13% and 7% respectively. By the way, should I have some cynical readers just east of Manitoba, I would remind you that, in Ontario, the NFL following is 14%, slightly below the 16% level for the CFL.

This takes me back to where I began. Why is the NHL receiving so much play, even in the midst of summer? Probably primarily because, unlike the situation in the U.S. where hockey is invisible much of the year, there are a lot of hockey reporters in Canada with a lot of pages and radio and TV space to fill. This legion of journalists works in tandem with a league that strategically works to constantly keep its product in the public eye - whether we want it or not.

A story for another time is why, in contrast, a league like the CFL fails to receive even a respectable fraction of the attention shown the NHL, despite the fact that surveys such as my own show it has a significant following, findings that are corroborated by very solid TV ratings for CFL games. I suspect much of the answer lies with the corporate and media tastes and inclinations of...Toronto.

Then again, better not alienate you people who keep my work in front of the country.

Go Leafs go!