Lights, Camera, Inaction

So, the Elite League have extended their TV deal with Sky Sports, and judging by the press release, they’re all very excited about it.

On the face of it, there’s no reason not to be. Production company Televideo do a good job with the coverage, one live game a month gets the sport some exposure to the greater public, and a highlights show, too, means that somewhere on Sky Sports there’s British hockey.

All is good, right?

Well it is, if you’re willing to take the announcement on face value. However, given that the Elite League clubs reportedly have to pay Sky for the coverage, just what are they getting benefit-wise from Sky themselves for their money? Apparently they will pay nothing this time round-but with no payment and little financial incentive to Sky to show it, what’s to stop them shunting it around the schedules even more than they already have?

The one live game a month on a Friday evening was trumpeted as a major coup for Brit hockey. After all, EVERYONE has Sky Sports now and so there’s a potential audience of 60 million people out there to market the sport to, isn’t there?

Let’s get this ABUNDANTLY clear before we carry on…none of the following is criticising either the quality of the product produced by Televideo, nor the Elite League having a TV deal. It’s a hypothetical argument on how that TV deal could change in the future, and how a change could possibly benefit the league.

And that would be fine-until you apply the Rules of Devil’s Advocate and consider a few facts about the coverage:

Scheduling: The highlights show was, to put it kindly, all over the place. Late Friday night, early Saturday morning, late Sunday morning, sometimes on Sky Sports 2, sometimes on 3 or 4…sandwiched in between Swedish speedway, German handball and Italian rugby.

Reach: Remember that “whole country” argument? Latest statistics show that there are around 11 million Sky subscribers in the UK, and 6 million to Virgin media. So that “60 million” becomes “17 million”. Then remember that of those, how many are likely to spot “British ice hockey” tucked away in the schedule and go “oh, what the hell, I’ll avoid the football, rugby or cricket on other channels or the Simpsons on Sky 1 and watch a sport I’ve never heard of featuring players I’d not recognise in the street and that I don’t get the rules of.”

To put that effect into perspective-the WWE, derided by many as “a soap for grown men” gets ten times the amount of viewers the EIHL did-and that’s on very late at night also.

Then remember that these live games will cause attendances to drop (last season Coventry took on Sheffield on a Friday night in January in front of a crowd that was probably 20% smaller than the equivalent Sunday game would have been, in a rink where the atmosphere was flat and the home team appeared to have stage fright. THAT’s not going to sell British hockey to the casual fan.

Then, add in that the people most likely to be watching the Elite League highlights are British hockey fans who’ve paid for the package anyway, the fact that Sky barely really advertised the programme (certainly in all my watching of Sky Sports I never once saw an ad for it) and you wonder…

While the Elite League are all excited because they can say “we’re on Sky Sports!” the fact remains that they’re on one of the minor channels, moved around the schedule and live games hurt the clubs attendances.

Now a lot of people defending the deal will say “hockey needs exposure”. And this is a fair point indeed. Indeed league spokesman Tony Smith has said that the league has a “high-profile image”.

Personally I’m not sure that having a highlights show stuck on late at night on one of the side Sky Sports channels and moving around the schedule can be truly called “high profile”, especially when the average audience numbers struggle to reach the high five figures, but each to his own.

But are the Elite League’s (fairly meagre) resources best spent on pursuing a deal with Sky in a desperate hope that one day the Murdoch empire programmers might say “sod it, let’s give up on the Spanish football and stick British hockey in there instead?” or are they better off chasing the terrestrial market-particularly with the recent BBC mandate that more minority sports have to be covered?

Cycling gets a regular spot on freeview. So do the British Touring Cars. In the past, BBC local radio has covered live games from Bracknell and Slough in the EPL and Coventry, Sheffield and Nottingham in the Elite League. Clubs already have the local media connections-why not use them to get live commentaries broadcast and advertised on the Internet-or take the Televideo footage and say to the BBC “we’ve got the infrastructure in place, why not sell it?”

Everyone has terrestrial TV or freeview now.The likes of ITV4 and BBC3 are SCREAMING for content. Imagine the reach of an Elite League highlights show placed on BBC3 at, say, 8pm on a Friday night-or a live game (perhaps the PO weekend) on BBC2 or 3 on a Sunday, much like rugby on BBC NI or the Welsh regions is already?

Sure, some will argue a live game on terrestrial TV may affect attendances-but visit all the rinks like Sky do to spread the supposed “hit” out and it will likely ease the risk a little. Then of course there’s the obvious argument that football has live coverage almost wall-to-wall on Sky and a weekly highlights show on Saturday night on terrestrial TV-and that doesn’t seem to have done the attendances much harm, does it?

Even aiming a little lower at regional radio/internet commentaries may seem like a step backward, but it means clubs are consistently targeting their local fanbase, or, to put it another way people who they know might actually come to the games. All the Sky seems to do is give existing hockey fans a new way to keep an eye on their team more cheaply (and the Elite League to think it’s in the big-time)

Finding “expert” commentators a problem? Several teams in the league now have their own webcasts, run by volunteers most of whom are a) fans of the sport and b) dying to get into the media. Maybe it’s time to give them a go, fire some new blood in there and see what happens-since this strategy of “pay for airtime” has gone on for seven years with no immediately discernible benefit or increase in crowds.

Sure, Sky are prestigious a name to be associated with, but with the BBC now changing their remit and on the lookout for minority sports, and the league having built a good relationship with the Televideo production company, why not change tack in not aiming for the most “instant” fix, but taking advantage of changes in BBC philosophy AND the wider reach of the BBC to sell the product-probably without having to put money in Sky’s pocket while doing so, too.

It may mean that this year there’s no live Sky coverage and we don’t see Dave Simms on our TV screens as much…it may mean that the league goes from live (pay-per-view) visual games to live (free) Internet audio…but it also means that the league aren’t throwing good money after bad, the EIHL gets reliable and consistent coverage at the same time every week, and pairs up with the UK’s national broadcaster to do so.

Surely that can’t be bad, can it?

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