Growing the sport.

Right. It’s been a while since I did a blog on here, mostly because I’m tired of all the nonsense that seems to follow my every utterance on the situation here in Manchester. So, I’ve decided to write about something completely different.

British ice hockey is in a rut. Despite the seeming growth of the sport (yes, some EIHL teams are seeing some growth, but that is limited, and often “one off” bumper crowds), the sport has been pretty stagnant for more than a decade now, with little or no will seemingly to grow beyond the little fiefdoms we have currently.

Well, this weekend, something caught my eye. British basketball, through the outlet of its senior league, the BBL, have opted to offer a free live stream via the Sky Sports website of one of its showpiece occasions, the BBL Cup final. In hockey terms, the BBL Cup is not dissimilar to the Challenge Cup at both EIHL and EPL levels. The main difference would appear to be that rather than have a 2 legged mid week “final”, the BBL has for the last 10 years taken the bold step of using the 12,000 capacity Barclaycard Arena (otherwise known as the NIA) in Birmingham to host a one off showpiece game. And you know what, they have been damned successful with it. Looking at the stream today, I’d wager there were more than 10,000 there, watching a full days worth of sport (Womens BBL Trophy final, Slam Dunk competition, and then the main event itself), and having a bloody good time.

BUt what got me was the way the game is being used to promote the sport to a wider audience. Specifically, it is being offered for free. No subscription to Sky Sports/Premier Sports/etc, no “streaming fee”, nothing. Just a free stream of the game, complete with graphics, commentary etc being offered. And there appears to be no concerns about any potential “lost revenue” from doing this, an argument often brought up when ideas such as this are mentioned to the “powers that be” in hockey circles. 10,000 people in attendance, who presumably all paid. And however many people choose to stream it at home. WHich brings potentially new eyes to the BBL. It might be a lapsed fan. Or someone who used to play when they were younger. Or a curious NBA fan. But each set of eyes watching the free stream is potentially a new paying customer at their local BBL (or EBL) club. As a marketing idea, it doesn’t get much better. Hook them with something for free, and then charge them to keep watching it live.

So why does no one at the EIHA or EIHL think this is a good idea? Probably because they believe the nonsense about it harming paid attendances, or “devaluing the brand” if offered for free. Why not have the EPL or EIHL Cup FInals as a one off showpiece game? Stream it online, for free. Show people who otherwise are “outside” British ice hockey what they are missing. Because, being honest, most “marketing” in British hockey (such as the current trend towards paid for streams) is aimed at fans already part of the sport. Surely someone needs to look outside of their own rink/arena, and grasp the bigger picture. Most teams play to half full venues at best most weekends. There is such potential to fill those venues week in, week out, if only someone was brave enough to grab the game by the balls and drag it screaming into the light. Hook people in for free. Offer them entertainment they might not have paid for with no prior knowledge of what it is, and then convince them to spend money to keep watching. In a way it’s just like offering free ticket promos, except rather than reach a few hundred (depending on how many tickets are allocated to the promotion) there is the potential to reach thousands. But it probably won’t ever happen, as everyone is too self absorbed to take a bigger view of where the game is, and where it could be in 5 years time.

But maybe, just maybe, someone of import will have seen the BBL do this promotion this weekend, and maybe it will set a few gears turning, and get the right people talking. Maybe. Well, we can but hope.

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