So, after the events in Cardiff on Sunday, the EIHL is getting front page coverage in newspapers, Sky Sports primetime videos and comment on the BBC too.
This MUST be good for the sport, right?
Here’s the “front page” mentioned:
I don’t know about you, but there is no way I can look at that and think “yup, that’s the kind of image I want people to have of ice hockey-a sport where all hell breaks loose in a brawl and fans get involved.
Devils fans have been unanimous in condemning the fan’s actions, and the club have dealt with the matter by banning the offender for the rest of the season, so I’m not going to concentrate on that part of the story.
However, the post-handshake brawl has ended up on TSN, Sky Sports news and being RTed all over the place-and apparently this is being seen as some sort of big marketing jackpot because it shows the “passion of hockey” and “a great rivalry”.
A good friend and colleague of mine, Stuart Coles, argues in this excellent UK American Sports Fans article that such incidents as the Coventry v Cardiff post-handshake brawl are an excellent marketing tool, and that clubs can’t afford to ignore them. Whilst I agree with his point that rivalries themselves are fantastic if used properly, I’m dubious about those who think that it’s a good thing to have these sorts of incidents all over the media on the basis that “no publicity is bad”.
To the average sports fan in the UK, hockey is a joke sport-basically UFC on ice. Sure, those of us who actually watch it know that it’s the greatest sport in the world, but this week’s media storm over the fun in Coventry-Cardiff is, in my eyes, a perfect example of how NOT to market the sport to a new audience-and any club following the path of doing so is shooting both themselves and UK hockey in the foot with a twelve-bore.
Look at the Sky Sports video online. No mention of the game itselt-the great finish by Matt Beleskey, the nailbiting game the night before in Coventry, or the long history of excellent matches between these two teams. There’s so little research been done that they can’t even be bothered to find out who’s involved, calling Devils coach Neil Francis and Max Birbraer “spectators”. This from the network that supposedly covers the sport in the UK and is the most clued-up on it.
In fact, there’s no context in the report at all…it’s a typical lazy British media treatment of “hey, look at the silly thugs on ice fighting even when the games finished! Aren’t they funny? LOL”.
Over in North America, where hockey is much more popular, the tone’s slightly different. Over there the response when something like this happens is “what, they have hockey in the UK?” f ollowed by “Look at this gongshow!”
The major problem with this is that-while in most leagues in North America the marketing thrust is “look at this skilled sport that’s also brutal and passionate…come and join in!” the default response in the UK (even by those within the sport) is “fighting = passion = great rivalry = ticket sales”.
It doesn’t. As long as UK hockey fans and teams continue to have the mentality that fighting is a great selling point for the sport in this country and that moments like the Coventry-Cardiff brawl are something to be savoured, glorified and remembered fondly for the rest of time just like people STILL go on about the circus that was the Sheffield-Nottingham Boxing Day Brawl, then the sport will never be taken seriously by the media in this country.
Basically, it’s time for UK hockey fans and teans to stop going YAY FIGHTS! as a marketing strategy, because that attitude is ensuring nothing except that mainstream media will continue to laugh at the sport and its fans.
Before I get the usual taunts of “Euro pussy” and “bet you’re one of those who’d prefer hockey to be non-contact”, I don’t. I love a good, close, hard-checking game as much as anyone. I also accept that when you have a sport based on 200lb men colliding at 20 mph with blades on their feet and sticks in their hands, there is going to be a scrap once in a while.
But what I don’t accept is that this is a viable way to sell it, in rivalries or otherwise.
Imagine, for argument’s sake, that someone tried to sell you on going to a sports event with the argument “you should come to this, cause last time it all kicked off and several of our people got beaten the crap out of, so now we’re going to try and beat the crap out of them in revenge-particularly this one guy who we all REALLY hate who’s an arsehole and asking for it. Come and watch people you don’t know risk getting seriously injured for no other reason than entertainment. It’ll be awesome!”
Now imagine that same event is being sold with the argument: “Come and watch two evenly-matched teams who’ll be working their arses off and doing anything they can to try and win a sporting contest! You’re guaranteed to see great sporting skill, speed and hard work. And feats of athleticism that’ll leave you speechless! And oh-it’s a rivalry game so you’re guaranteed passion, noise and two sets of fans who’ll take the roof off the arena. It’ll be awesome!”
Interesting if, like me, you picked the second one. That’s a summary of how the NHL (God rest its locked-out soul) markets the playoffs. It’s an example highlighting all the good things about hockey-the skill, the speed, the potential every shift for someone to make the crowd gasp and go “how in holy CHRIST did he do that” (or as I call it, the HF Factor, for things that can only be responded to with the phrase “Holy f…!”
The first example, however, is closer to how UK hockey fans and more to the point teams look at a rivalry game when they market it. Look at how the main buzz ahead of this Wednesday’s game in Sheffield is “will Olson and Sestito fight again?” or how Sheffield focused on how Brad Leeb was going to get retribution for his sins in interviews before their early season meeting with Coventry.
You can bet that the next time Coventry and Cardiff meet this incident will be dragged up again by both sides in some variety of “Handshake Havoc II: THE REVENGE!” rhetoric. Talking heads like Dave Simms will mention the incident at length on their Sky shows and discuss the repercussions for next time. The build up the week before will be “they’ve had two months to wait…now, it’s payback time!”.
And somewhere in the middle of all this, a hockey game will be played in front of a crowd that’s either quietly or loudly baying for the other team to pay in blood.
Hockey as a sport has so much to offer. But unfortunately, all that it seems UK hockey can think to offer as an incentive to people to come and watch is the chance to see one big bloke kick the crap out of another, disguised with phrases that have been corrupted to glorify vicious brawls and horrific injuries like “OLD TIME HOCKEY!”.
The view of OLD TIME HOCKEY that everyone subscribes to is the physical kind-the romanticised view of the likes of the Broad Street Bullies in Philly, the snarling menace of Bob Probert, Stu Grimson, Tie Domi and the like. That’s the kind of OLD TIME HOCKEY the UK media would have you believe is all you get-intimidation, imposing of physical will and many, many vicious fights, all in the name of a game. The kind of OLD TIME HOCKEY that seems to be not just romanticised but adored as a marketing tool in the UK.
But OLD TIME HOCKEY is also the silky skating of Bobby Orr, the supernatural puck-handling ability of Jean Beliveau, or the fiery heart and passion of the player who stood not just for a team but a people, Maurice “the Rocket” Richard. It’s something much more than what most people in the UK understand it to be.
The trouble is, due to the exposure and glorification of films like Slapshot and the lack of education (or even attempts to educate themselves) of most UK hockey fans, media and arguably team personnel themselves, the game is being sold short in the UK over and over again. It’s being done a tragic, tragic injustive.
And the most tragic thing about it, as events like this bringing up the same lazy stereotypes in the UK media and the marketing strategies of teams prove, is that it’s those within the game and their attitude towards “publicity at any price” who are responsible for it.
Fighting is a part of hockey, but as a selling point, it’s nowhere near the best part. The sooner some in the UK game realise that, the better,