The summer is a dead time for British hockey. With clubs making their offseason preparations in secret and trying to steal a march on other teams, the only real time clubs can count on any media coverage is either (briefly) for the return of players, or possibly a little more for a new signing. It’s hard to get any media buzz going at all when you’re fighting against national sporting staples like cricket, Wimbledon and all the other summer sports-especially when there’s not much going on on the ice, so you can forgive teams for not managing to keep up a consistent media presence. When there’s not that much to talk about, there’s not much point pushing for daily media coverage.
But EIHL teams, as a group, have a history of not using media to their best advantage. In fact, it could be argued that in the past year or so, while British hockey has trumpeted great advances in media coverage after Premier Sports covered the national team in both their Olympic qualifying campaign and the World Championships, they now have the best possible chance in a while, and possibly the tools, to increase media coverage in Britain-but they just aren’t taking it. In fact, the current attitude to the media displayed by those in power in the EIHL may actually in some cases be harming any chance the sport gets of “serious” media coverage.
Firstly, there’s the “perceived” professionalism of the sport in the UK, and the seeming lack of change within it. I wrote back in September about the EIHL’s seeming lack of professionalism even when introducing a social media policy…a big part of which was the seeming allowing of open threats and sniping from some public figures within the game while fining players and coaches (eventually) for seemingly lesser offences. The simple question is-if the EIHL doesn’t know the best way to control its own public image through its own people-then how can it hope to influence others?
That’s not to say that there’s not forces for change in the league-Privately, I’ve heard several people in positions of power in the Elite League, representing several different clubs, say that “we know UK hockey and the EIHL media coverage could be better, but what can you do about it?”. The answer lies in the effort for clubs to generate interest through their own coverage-the spread of Internet webcasting of games has accelerated over the past season or so, with more teams than just Belfast trying it…and while standards may vary, the effort at least is there-indeed the Blaze have been at the forefront of this with Coventry Blaze TV.
However, the EIHL’s relationship with the media has always been a somewhat curious one…those within power in the sport accept that they want the sport to have a higher media profile, but they are often unreceptive to offers of outside help, looking to grasp the maximum possible benefit for the minimum possible amounts of effort-even in efforts to spread the webcasting bug-and ideally, not spend any money on media promotion whatsoever, unless it’s persevering with a Sky deal which was much heralded when it came in but has looked less and less advantageous to the league as time has gone on.
In November, I wrote a blog post considering how the tired, samey, cookie-cutter press-releases of “official” channels were being usurped by a new type of fan coverage-of which this blog is an example-a lot of passionate, knowledgeable hockey fans from all over the country deciding that if the media wasn’t going to cover their sport, they’d do it themselves. I make the point in that article that in the NHL and some European leagues these fans are given all the help possible by clubs, including access to players, articles, press passes and all the sort of things you’d expect a club that wanted media coverage to give to those willing to write about and promote their sport for free. However, with a few exceptions in British hockey, these fans are given nothing-indeed, if the reactions of some prominent EIHL media officials and club officials are indicative, they’re almost seen as an annoyance.
In fact, and perhaps sinisterly, in some quarters of British hockey there almost seems to be a disdain for any view/media coverage that isn’t the official “club sanctioned” one. In fact, there’s almost a confrontational willing to dismiss the efforts of bloggers, writers and anyone who isn’t within the very small cabal of established EIHL writers-(an example of this occurred only today when Sheffield’s Dave Simms responded to my last blog post on Steelers budget with “full of nonsense”, but has so far neglected to point out exactly where it is wrong. So far this off-season we’ve also had this: a Sheffield player (Rob Dowd) and the same Steelers official (Dave Simms) publicly responding to a fan’s question with abuse and swearing:
Let’s be honest, you’d never be allowed to get away with that in most sporting leagues.
There seems to be a bunker mentality in UK hockey and an unwillingness to actually say anything worthwhile in club released coverage-Craig Summerton does an excellent job of summarising the failings in EIHL club efforts in PR here…I too have had figures within the UK game tell me that “I didn’t know what I was talking about so should shut up” or that I “knew nothing about hockey cause I’d never played” (that one was great fun to refute with “actually, I’ve played for ten years”). As Craig says, it seems that the default response to criticism/questions from EIHL clubs seems to be to insult and belittle fans and even volunteer media rather than engage with them-something that’s hardly going to improve the view of a sport if it’s seen by those looking to engage in coverage of the EIHL-particularly in a media world where seemingly it’s more about “who” you know that gets you the opportunities to represent the sport on a wider level rather than raw talent alone (although this is a rant that is covered fully in the social media post I linked to a little earlier.
At this point I should point out both in the interests of balance and in giving praise that there ARE clubs in the EIHL who are making great strides with the media-Belfast, for example, have an excellent relationship with UTV and the biggest newspapers in Northern Ireland while the Scottish clubs are regularly featured in the Scottish Sun and other newspapers north of the border-indeed this season Braehead will be sponsored by one of the largest newspapers in Scotland. Down south, Nottingham are active in their work with the local BBC stations, Cardiff’s GM Brent Pope has done a superb job this season in attempting to engage with EIHL fans and soliciting their opinion on how they think the league can improve, and Coventry, too, are doing well and beginning to make more inroads back into the football-dominated local media.
However, the EIHL still seem to be reluctant to accept “too much” media coverage…particularly if they feel there’s the slightest chance it will affect the bottom line.
The best example of this, and also perhaps the most breathtaking example of an EIHL owner self-sabotaging without seemingly even knowing it, is from Sheffield owner Tony Smith.
On May 16th in a Sheffield Star article which you can read here, Smith stated he wanted to up crowds in South Yorkshire, and also took a veiled shot at the BBC in the area, claiming they weren’t interested in covering the sport. He said this about the Steelers media coverage (quote in italics, bold/normal text mine for emphasis:
“I saw Tanya Arnold banging away about rugby every night on BBC Look North (local BBC news for S.Yorkshire), which seems a bit one-sided coverage, but I suppose rugby has more money and hype,”
Granted, rugby is popular in Yorkshire, as it is in the rest of the country. However, call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure that if a sports league wants more coverage, then having one of the top figures in that league publicly criticising one of the biggest providers of that coverage AND taking a shot at one of their employees is probably not the best way to make friends.
This quote only gets more surprising when you bear in mind that Tony Smith, as Steelers owner, refused access to the BBC (in the person of BBC Nottingham) when they wanted to cover the Sheffield/Nottingham Challenge Cup game live on (free) BBC radio only a month earlier, as he was worried that it would harm the (pay) webcast produced by…the Sheffield Steelers. In the past the Steelers have also shut down a free radio commentary service provided by fans that had become incredibly popular.
So, if you’re tracking, what we have here is a team owner complaining about the BBC not covering his team….having refused to allow the BBC to cover his team only a month earlier.
The cognitive dissonance at work here is something special. It’s truly self-sabotaging. It’s basically criticising a national media group who WANTED to cover your team and were prevented by you for not covering them enough.
It’s the most spectacular of PR own goals, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC are more reluctant to cover the Sheffield Steelers and possibly British ice hockey as a whole in the future.
But sadly, it’s also a glaring example of the attitude of some in the EIHL-that they want media coverage, but only when it suits them.
And it’s the latest example of an attitude which, while it is by no means held by all owners, is only going to sabotage the efforts of their counterparts both inside and outside the league as they strive to tell more people in the UK about this great sport of ours.
The strides made with Premier Sports and Sky up until now show that, if they want to, the EIHL can get people interested in covering the sport in the UK. A start has been made. But regrettably, unless some (and only some) in power change their attitude and the examples of Belfast and the Scottish teams are followed by the other clubs in the EIHL, this attitude will only continue to harm the sport that those who hold it claim to love.