Every major professional sports league in America has teams in towns that aren’t very passionate about their sport. Atlanta, for instance, doesn’t seem to be much of an NBA town. The owners of the Marlins, no matter which owners they are, seem to go out of their way to make sure Miami will never be a Major League Baseball town.
No league deals with this phenomenon more than the NHL. That’s not an indictment. As the league expanded, it made sense to establish footprints across the South and the West Coast. While the success of teams in Nashville, Tampa, and most recently Las Vegas have created a decent fanbase in those cities, it is fair to say that the NHL had no established hockey culture to rely on in those regions.
It makes sense then, that not every NHL team has a major presence on local sports radio. As the puck gets set to drop on a new season tonight, I talked to four programmers in American cities that have a passion for hockey about how the local team is covered on their station. We reached out to a programmer in Canada, who did not respond. It sucks, but it actually gives us the chance to focus on coverage of the NHL on American sports radio, where hockey is not our national pastime.
When you think about hockey in this country, your mind might jump straight to Detroit. The Red Wings are in a bit of a down cycle, but the city is Hockeytown, USA. At least that’s what the “Welcome to Detroit” sign says.
Jimmy Powers, who programs 97.1 the Ticket, says the team’s recent struggles may have silenced some fans, but has created more conversations on his air waves. “[There’s] a lot more to talk about because of the rebuild and their new stadium.” It also doesn’t hurt that the city’s other winter team, the NBA’s Pistons, have been struggling too.
When I asked Powers how much hosts on The Ticket talked about the Pistons in relation to the Red Wings, he answered “It all depends on what is going on and what they have been doing.” It is safe to deduce then that outside of acquiring Blake Griffin from the Clippers last season, the Pistons have probably not give hosts in Detroit much of a reason to push that team into their A block.
But the Red Wings, contrary to what some of us that live outside of the D may think, aren’t always in that A block either. When I asked Powers about the hierarchy of Detroit sports, he described it as “TIGERS and LIONS, until the NHL playoffs.”
Allan Davis programs WGR, which is in Buffalo, another hockey-obsessed town. No matter how you measure it, the hometown Sabres were the NHL’s worst team last season. Davis says that definitely showed in the way his hosts talked about the team, but it didn’t push the team off the air at all. ” Like the fans – WGR can sound frustrated with the results of the Bills and Sabres at times. We are fans too. But good or bad, season in and season out – WGR tells the story of every more the teams make on an off the ice, on an off the field, no matter the results of the games. Every day starts with ‘What’s the latest news!'”
He also told me that fans in Buffalo are used to struggling teams. Until last season the Bills owned the NFL’s longest playoff drought. Davis says that means most people that are passionate about the Sabres see the team as something more than just an NHL franchise. For many in his audience, the Bills and Sabres are a stand-in for their community as a whole. “Being a fan of either of these teams means, you know and understand how proud the people of Western New York are of who they are, where they live and how they live. Honest, hardworking and giving. Win, lose or draw we stay together, always there to help each other, whenever or wherever it is needed.”
I asked Allan then how that kind of passion shows up in his coverage of local sports, and if WGR favors covering one team over the other. He said that it depends on the time of year really, but in striving to keep WGR’s local programming all about Buffalo, both teams have a year-round presence. “WGR has a two hour show – The Instigators – from 10AM-12PM that covers the Sabres all year round. From 12PM-3PM – One Bills Live – is all about the Bills all year round. From August through the fall WGR leans more Bills and football. Winter and early spring more Sabres.”
I never really thought of Washington, DC as a hockey town. Like a lot of sports fans that live outside the nation’s capital, I assumed the sports hierarchy started with the Redskins and everything under that was something of a miss mash depending on who was in contention for a title. Whether that is true or not, 106.7 the Fan program director Chris Kinard, says it didn’t take a Stanley Cup title for his station to treat the Washington Capitals like something more than an afterthought. He told me that hosts and management at The Fan have been focused on their relationship with the team for years.
“We have steadily increased our Capitals content over the last few years, and I believe we will take it to a new level this year. We will have three different players on each week, we’ll be joined by the head coach every two weeks, and we’ll have regularly scheduled segments with several of the team broadcasters. We have had the only Caps-focused radio show for a few years, and that show will continue in a regularly scheduled weekday slot again this year.”
He also said that the Capitals have been more than willing to do their part to grow the relationship as well. “Their PR staff is phenomenal. They understand that, to grow their sport, they need to get their players out in the media as ambassadors. And they know the players are GREAT ambassadors. Funny, smart, open, and easy to like. So we do more player interviews with the Capitals than probably all of the other teams combined.”
Is DC a Redskins town? Well, the team does usually dominate the headlines in the fall, but Kinard says this week “most of our focus…will be on the Capitals as they raise their Stanley Cup banner, and drop the puck on the 2018-19 season. We have special shows planned throughout the week, and a few surprises up our sleeve that I think our listeners will love.”
Finally, I talked to Jim Graci at 93.7 the Fan in Pittsburgh. That station isn’t the flagship of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but given how important the team is to local fans, Jim says you have to really know hockey if you want to work for him. “Pittsburgh is a hockey town. So to do sports talk in Pittsburgh, you better know your hockey. It’s not surprising when you have a team as successful as the Pens have been for multiple generations.”
Multiple generations is exactly right. When I asked Jim how much of a factor Sidney Crosby is in the Penguins’ popularity, he was quick to point out that while Sid the Kid moves the needle in a big way, he is just one of the many superstars that have worn the team’s sweater. “We’re blessed in Pittsburgh to have Sidney Crosby. It felt like Sid was the second coming of Mario Lemieux. And think about it, Lemieux had Jagr (Jaromir Jagr) and Sid has Geno (Evgeni Malkin). Add to it that Sid had the chance to play with Mario, who literally saved the franchise in Pittsburgh. It was the passing of the legacy torch.”
So given that multiple generations of Penguins fans have their own stars, do they also have their own rivals? Jim told me that while younger fans have a number of teams they hate, one rivalry unites the fanbase like no other. “The Washington Capitals, with the comparisons between Crosby-Malkin and Ovechkin are a rival… From a historic perspective, the Rangers and Islanders get our fans riled up. Columbus has become a rival without the history. They’re better, they play in the same division and it’s a close proximity to Pittsburgh. The years of living in the Pens’ shadow has made much more intense for their fans. Detroit was a rival, due to playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, losing one than winning one. But nothing gets hockey fans buzzing better than Pens-Flyers. And it gets even more intense when the Flyers have a good year.”
The lesson I took away from these conversations is that hockey talk can work on sports radio if your listeners have the passion to support it. It doesn’t have to be a “hockey town” necessarily to talk about major news involving the team. Conversely, even in Hockeytown, USA, a bad team can depress fan enthusiasm.
What matters is that hosts recognize passion where it exists and never treat a hockey interview or discussion like an afterthought. Powers says he gives his hosts the freedom to cover the Red Wings and the NHL as a whole however they see fit. “Our local show will take calls, but we also will be talking about the biggest news stories of the day, even if it is unrelated to what game is about to be played.”
Kinard told me he doesn’t waste time worrying about whether DC is a “hockey market.” “For many years during the “Rock the Red” era, which started about 10 years ago, you could argue that the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. I don’t know that the audience has the sophistication and knowledge of the sport as some traditional hockey cities, but they certainly have passion.”
His attitude is one of “if the fans are passionate about the Capitals, then the Capitals are worth talking about.” That may be best way to approach hockey on sports radio, especially somewhere like Raleigh, NC, which is where I live.
I, and most of my neighbors, didn’t grow up with hockey as part of our day-to-day lives. Still though, nothing in sports unites this town, which is so divided by the college sports loyalties that exist here, like the Carolina Hurricanes making the playoffs. That obviously hasn’t happened in a long time, but if our local hosts don’t take the time to at least know who the stars are and develop relationships with the team, they are going to be at a disadvantage when trying to talk about the market’s biggest story when it finally does happen again.