It is without hyperbole that one can argue that ESPN is killing the National Hockey League. By creating and reinforcing an expectation of failure regarding the NHL, ESPN is shaping public perception and contributing to the “death” of the NHL in the United States.
At first glance, the argument that ESPN has the power to “kill” any major sport may appear sensationalist. However, the impact of ESPN on the average American sports fan can be easily underestimated. As the first national sports television network, ESPN has developed a loyal following and widespread credibility among sports fans — so much so that it can brand itself The Worldwide Leader in Sports without appearing too self-aggrandizing or sensational. Via a combination of business savvy, competent self-promotion, and responsible coverage of major sporting events, ESPN has more than lived up to its promise and is now the first choice for sports news in over 100 million U.S. homes. The network’s commentators and personalities have become larger than life and the de facto sources of sports information and expertise.
While ESPN’s stock has been rising, there can be little debate that the NHL’s stock has been dropping on ESPN. Since the NHL made the questionable decision to abandon the cable network as its broadcast partner in favor of the fledgling Versus network, many have argued that NHL coverage on the Worldwide Leader in Sports has ranged from underwhelming to disrespectful. Even ESPN’s ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, felt compelled to examine hockey coverage on the network. In an article last month, she confirmed that hockey coverage has indeed diminished 28% on Sportscenter over the last three years and that hockey-oriented shows such as NHL 2Night were cut altogether since ESPN’s loss of NHL rights.
The reduced exposure on ESPN can only be harmful to the NHL. By minimizing coverage and highlights, the network is effectively reducing the imprint of the game on Americans’ collective sports consciousness. Worse still, several ESPN writers and commentators have gone out of their way to emphasize the demise of hockey. Le Ann Schreiber recently noted that during the NHL’s regular season, hockey was only mentioned on-air if there happened to be “some egregious brawl” or if it was being “dissed” for its invisibility and irrelevance.
In sharp contrast to the treatment of the NHL, ESPN favorites such as NASCAR face little scrutiny and massive hype. Once a niche sport with limited appeal, NASCAR is ESPN’s new hot property and has found itself to be the chief beneficiary of the network’s downgrading of hockey. Northwest News Group columnist Kevin Kaduk notes that since ESPN’s purchase of NASCAR broadcast rights, the network has been force-feeding the sport to its readers via its various news outlets. Indeed in January 2007, ESPN senior vice president Jed Drake explicitly promised as much. Unlike its coverage of the NHL, ESPN has shown remarkable patience with NASCAR as evidenced by its burying or putting a positive spin on negative NASCAR news such as that of falling TV ratings for the sport.
Specific examples of the anti-hockey bias are rampant. Recently Mike Greenberg of Mike & Mike defended the lack of hockey coverage on his show by asserting that there is a “general lack of interest in the sport” and that that was just “the reality of it.” Popular ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons publicly gave up on hockey and his Boston Bruins in 2001. Granted, he thought about giving hockey another chance after the lockout in 2005, but has since written about hockey only sporadically but then mostly to mock it. In fact, since Simmons’s 2005 column, he has only written one article dealing extensively with hockey – his running diary of the 2007 NHL entry draft, which is dripping in sarcasm. In his last few lines he states that “This league needs all the help it can get” and that “… I’ll see you in 12 months for the 2008 draft. And not a second before.” Simmons’s caustic sign-off underscores his view that the NHL remains in jeopardy and is worthy of viewing only for unintentional comedic effect. Hockey, according to ESPN, is a punch-line.
Surely, ESPN’s attitude towards hockey influences its audience. Herbert C. Kelman of Harvard University notes that there are three source characteristics necessary to persuade others and change their attitudes: the source’s (1) expertise, (2) trustworthiness, and (3) power. Of course, ESPN scores a hat trick by (1) regularly hosting a series of experts on various sporting subjects, (2) hosting several hard-news sports programs, and (3) attracting sports’ heavy hitters to its airwaves. Thus, ESPN can exert informational and normative social influence on sports fans who, like the rest of us, seek consensus and conformity far more than we realize. As Situationist contributor Sung Hui Kim notes, this motive for conformity exists among peers and groups of many types, including otherwise adversarial lawyers.
Informational social influence most frequently occurs when there is ambiguity regarding a situation or when there is a crisis. In those times, people tend to defer to those more knowledgeable than them for obvious reasons. The “experts'” conclusions are readily internalized, or in other words are accepted as correct and become part of the person’s internal belief system. In those situations, notes Kelman, experts exert great influence.
It seems likely that the aftermath of the 2004-2005 NHL lockout was such a situation. Paul Hunter of the Toronto Star noted that the NHL was in a critical state at the time, looking to reconnect with alienated casual fans. As hockey agent Larry Rauch said, retrieving those fans will require a “protracted effort from everyone in the game.” Given that crisis, many fans probably depend on ESPN unconsciously as a source of information regarding whether the sport is worthy of their time, loyalty, and dollars. Instead of reassurance that the NHL, like the NBA, NFL, and MLB, will rebound from its own dark era, ESPN experts continue to question the strength and relevance of the league and choose to cut its coverage of hockey instead. ESPN’s coverage, or lack there of, implicates the NHL’s viability.
To make matters worse, such informational social influence can translate into normative social influence, which is born of the need to “conform to the rules of other people.” If it seems that a growing number of people dislike hockey or that being a hockey fan exposes one to ridicule, many will hide, ignore, or lose their affection for hockey.
Thus, the network’s negative portrayal of hockey is very likely causing a profound two-fold effect on the viewing public by prejudicing their perception of the facts and by affecting their feelings for the game.
Mike Greenberg, Bill Simmons, and the others may object to the statement that they are killing hockey and would likely point to two recent events to suggest that I am killing the messenger. First, they might point out that even NBC preempted the crucial Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals so that it could instead broadcast the pre-race coverage of the Preakness Stakes even after the NHL bent over backwards to accommodate NBC’s scheduling wishes. Second, they might note that the enthusiasm for the Stanley Cup Finals that followed was so underwhelming that Game 3 between the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks reached an all-time low prime-time rating of 1.1.
Simply looking at these events and ignoring NHL successes, however, would be an example of confirmation bias where one searches out or interprets new information that confirms one’s preconceptions – in this instance that of the NHL’s demise.
But reports of hockey’s death are greatly exaggerated. Professional hockey is doing relatively well in both its traditional and non-traditional markets. Financially speaking, the NHL’s has rebounded since its disastrous lockout during the 2004-2005 season. Television ratings may be down nationally but the NHL’s attendance figures are still relatively strong with record crowds attending games this past January. Indeed, the NHL’s attendance figures, while lower, are somewhat comparable to those of the NBA – a league widely hailed as successful by sportswriters. In addition, franchise values have gone up markedly since the lockout allowed league owners to break the players’ union (the NHLPA) and implement a favorable new collective bargaining agreement which included, among other features, a hard salary cap. As Eric McErlain details on Off Wing Opinion, prospective owners such as Jim Balsillie and an ownership group in Kansas City have been chomping at the bit to introduce hockey to new markets via re-location of struggling franchises after paying a hefty premium for the privilege.
Talent-wise, it can likewise no longer be said that the NHL is comprised of a bunch of Canadians and Europeans, as American players have been improving over the years. In fact, in the past NHL entry draft, American players were selected numbers 1 and 2 and, in total, U.S. players accounted for a record 30% of all players selected. Due to the fact that more American children than ever are playing hockey (with over 14,000 youth hockey players in Southern California alone) this talent influx of Americans to the NHL doesn’t appear to be in danger of dropping anytime soon. Expectations are that American superstars will help grow the league.
Lest this author be accused of suffering from his own confirmation bias as well, I will concede the point that all is not rosy with the NHL. The league may be over-expanded, under-funded, and poorly marketed. While Versus’ commitment to hockey may flatter NHL executives, the network resides in the cable wilderness and is available in many fewer homes than is ESPN. We will never know if hockey can eventually recover in the United States, however, if ESPN continues its de facto campaign against the game.