Embrace the niche?: Part One

The 2006-07 NHL season is now in the books (save for the gloriously compelling yet embarrassing train wreck in slow motion that is the NHL Awards, to come next week), and judging by the remarks of the sports commentariat, we’re all doomed. The bobbleheads on the ESPN talk shows continue to be dismissive and make funny, funny jokes about how “no one cares about hockey!” The hockey partisans point at the ESPN bobbleheads, at the record! low! TV ratings and scream that it’s all the fault of Bettman/expansion/too many Europeans/too much fighting/too little fighting. And King Kaufman encourages hockey fans to stop worrying and embrace their nicheness.

Does any of this matter to hockey fans? I’d argue that it does, but primarily to American fans. And that the niche does have its appeal, and maybe new technology is making that niche look more appealing.

First, an aside on Canadian fans. Hockey’s part of the mainstream culture in Canada; in fact, it’s virtually unavoidable (most of the most committed loathers of hockey I know are Canadians who feel bitterness at having it forced down their throats). It’s on TV every Saturday night even if you just have rabbit ears. When the sports highlights are on, you can count on hockey dominating. When you go into a bar during the playoffs, there will always be TVs tuned to the hockey game, even if it’s New Jersey vs Dallas and you’re thousands of miles away in Ontario. Even if you don’t live in an NHL city, there’s probably a CHL team nearby, or if your town is too small for even that, at least a Jr. B team. Hell, when I lived in Kingston, I could stop for gas at the 7-11 at Alfred and Princess, and while paying for my gas, pick up a couple packs of hockey cards, the latest issue of The Hockey News, a box of Kraft Dinner with a hockey card on the side, and a Toronto Maple Leafs cigarette lighter.

Which is to say, Canadians don’t have to seek out hockey or work to follow it. It’s just there for the taking, part of the buffet of Canadian culture. And that’s one reason why these debates about how popular hockey is in the US don’t resonate with them in general. To paraphrase an argument that a friend of mine has made on several occasions, “Whether or not hockey is popular in the US doesn’t affect my ability to follow the Habs and watch Habs games, so why does it matter?” And he’s right, it doesn’t matter to him, only potentially if the NHL’s state in the US became so parlous that the league as a whole risked collapse. And we’re still a long ways off from that. So this debate about whether or not hockey is a “niche sport” and whether that is a matter of concern is primarily a debate among American hockey fans.

I’ve always argued that it does matter to me, and that it matters specifically because of my experiences following the sport in a time and place where it was so niche as to hardly exist. If you’ve read my bio page, you’ll see that I’m one of the rare Americans who came to be a hockey fan solely through television. When I started watching hockey, during the 1985-86 season, it was still on ESPN, but within two seasons had decamped for SportsChannel, which wasn’t available in our area. This meant that (for the season or two until my ever-indulgent parents got a satellite dish that allowed me access to the NHL again) the only televised hockey we got apart from the Olympics was Rangers games on “Superstation” WOR and Moeller high school hockey on public access. The local papers printed just the NHL box scores, if we were lucky. At night, with some effort and fussing with the antenna on my boombox, I could pull in KMOX from St. Louis and listen to Dan Kelly calling the Blues games. Essentially, hockey was something that I had to seek out and work for.

Admittedly, there’s an attraction to that, being part of a small subculture. I could still probably name for you every kid in my high school who owned a hockey jersey of any sort, because it was just that rare. At one point in the late 80s, just before the Cyclones arrived and created some new fans, I’d guess that I could at least recognize by face most of the hockey fans in Cincinnati, which isn’t exactly a small town. It does make you feel like you’re part of some small group of tuned-in folks.

At around the same time that I became a hockey fan, I also became much more interested in what we then called “alternative music,” (or the more evocative IMHO term, “college rock”) what would now probably be most often labelled as “indie music.” Which by its very definition is something subcultural (hence all the agonized contortions and soul-searching after Nirvana hit it big in 1991) and outside the mainstream. And which for its partisans, especially when they’re smart, nerdy, insecure high schoolers, became something of a badge of honor, evidence that you were smarter and had better, more refined tastes than all those sheeple listening to Q102 or WEBN. (Writers like Tom Frank and Hal Niedzviecki would of course argue that the whole “look at me and how unique I am” urge has become dominant in North American culture in recent decades. And I’d say they’re largely right about that, but that’s a topic for another day.)

That elitism is what’s often appealing about niches. You and this other small group of the elect searched out this cool thing that no one else knows about, and that proves your superiority to all those people who settle for whatever they’re spoon-fed by the media. Seems kind of silly to be thinking this way about a sport which has Cialis ads during nearly every stoppage in play on television, but it’s a definite thread among American hockey fans. Basically, who cares what Tony Kornheiser or Bill Plaschke has to say about the NHL; I’m smarter than they are anyway, because I’m a hockey fan. They just don’t get it. (Of course, if you want the full-force application of this attitude in sports, you need to listen to American soccer fans)

It’s an appealing position, to be sure. I occasionally fall into it. But then I think back to those nights of painstakingly tweaking the radio dial and moving the antenna around searching for KMOX. And I don’t want to go back to that. I lived in the hockey-as-dominant-culture atmosphere of Canada for seven years, plus another three in college hockey-mad Upstate New York, and being assured regular access to that which I enjoy outweighs the “cool” factor of embracing the niche.

A more recent example: on the day when the NHL was carrying out the 2005 draft lottery (e.g., the Sidney Crosby lottery), I was driving from Columbus to Chicago. I spent three of the most painful hours of my life listening to sports talk radio out of Indianapolis trying to find out who had won the lottery, to no avail. Once I arrived in Chicago, I was finally able to use the internet function on my cell phone to find out that Pittsburgh had won. And then I still couldn’t find out where Columbus was picking. I eventually broke down and called one of my friends back here to get that news. And that is what hockey as just a niche results in. That’s why I’m not quite prepared to embrace the niche.

Of course, one could counter that there are technological fixes to the problems of being a niche sport. Hell, the satellite dish my folks bought in 1988 was one of them. And just two years after the miserable drive to Chicago, I can already say that I wouldn’t have that experience again. Now I have XM radio, which has 24-hour hockey talk. In fact, when I drove to Chicago most recently, last fall, I got to hear all about the Isles giving Rick DiPietro that insane 15-year contract. And even within the last couple of years, wi-fi has become common in even the most humble motels, so it’s likely that today I could have access to far more than I could get in 2005 via my cellphone’s puny browser (provided I’d hauled my laptop with me on the trip, of course).

And technology does make things a lot better than they were for me in the late 80s. NHL Center Ice means I can get just about any game no matter where I live. XM and internet radio broadcast all the games, and give me access to all sorts of hockey talk. If my local newspaper doesn’t give enough coverage to hockey, I can read the newspapers of hockey towns on-line. Messageboards and blogs connect me to my fellow hockey fans all over the place. And it goes beyond the NHL — the internet lets me follow college hockey, minor league hockey, junior hockey, European hockey. Maybe hockey is a paradigmatic example of The Long Tail.

So maybe my fears are overblown, and new technology means it’s never going to get as bad as it was in the 1980s. That isolated hockey fan sitting in some city with no hockey team and no Versus still has access to a wealth of information and opinion about the sport. So perhaps I’m just like those people who grew up during the Great Depression, and could never quite shake the feeling that the good times wouldn’t last and the rug would shortly be pulled out from under them.

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3 responses to “Embrace the niche?: Part One

  1. Great post! The references to WOR and “college rock” — a phrase I had to train myself to stop using because younger folks would give me a puzzled look like when I tell one of my dogs a new command for the first time — show that we have similar backgrounds.

    My hockey fandom is currently at a low point (more because of time limitations than lack of interest), so I can’t offer an informed opinion, but I’m interested in the question of how big hockey should (or can) be in the US. You make a great point that hockey might be an excellent example of the Long Tail, and that various technologies will allow it to exist comfortably in a space bigger than a niche, but smaller than the Big Three.

    Do you think the NHL has been damaged by trying to shoot for Big Three status via expansion, etc.?

    Those early Cyclones days were a blast. Amy and I were early in our dating days — I was a hockey fan and her dad played for the old Cincinnati Mohawks, so going to the Cyclones opening night was really exciting. The crowds were great.

  2. Well-written post, Sarah. I thoroughly enjoyed your insights and analysis of the growing problem of the NHL’s “red-headed stepchild” syndrome in the US.

    The NHL needs to return to its roots and start marketing itself accordingly. I spoke a little about the return of Peter Puck on my blog, and that’s a start that the NHL should embrace.

    However, the southern US for the NHL is like climbing Mt. Everest with ice skates. It will take a long time and a lot of red ink before teams in the south are successful. You can’t set up shop and expect there to be legions of fans. It is, as you pointed out, a culture thing. If you live with ice and snow, you become much more hockey-oriented as a society.

    Great post, Sarah. :o)

  3. Good writing, Sarah, as usual. I have been ranting about hockey in the U.S. is a mess and enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    I have lived and worked in Canada on and off and am still amazed when I go into a McDonald’s and get hockey cards or see an NHL hat available with the purchase of beer.

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