Streaming hockey: Free or PPV?

With fans still barred from attending games in rinks across the country, the few games that are taking place are being streamed into the home of fans. But should this streaming hockey be made available for all? Or just those willing to pay for it?

Now, I’ll say right now, I feel that offering at least some games for free is the best option. Yes, I know that the clubs involved need some revenue to pay for the rink hire, etc, but to me it is far more important to get the sport in front of as many pairs of eyes as possible. Our sport, like many others, has been left decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. An entire 12 months worth of games has been lost. And with that, so has the attendant coverage by the press (such as it is). Hockey, like many other minority sports has effectively disappeared from the small part of the public consciousness it occupied.

And the few games that are being played are being seen by a very small number of people. The games are being streamed, but only to those I would call “hardcore” fans, willing to pay £12 per game. And while I understand the financial argument, for my money (pardon the pun) this is the wrong choice.

Right now, hockey needs all the coverage of the sport it can get. Traditionally, hockey has been a “bums on seats” business, reliant almost entirely on getting people into rinks every weekend for 30 weeks of the year. The pandemic has shown just how precarious a model this is for running a “professional” or “semi professional” sport with a relatively small audience. despite being the most popular indoor sport in the UK, it still lags far, far behind all the other big sports. Even amateur football can achieve bigger crowds than many hockey clubs do.

So here is an opportunity to reset the sports relationship with the public. Why not experiment and get a few games live streamed on YouTube or Twitch? As an example, with just 2 weeks notice, British Swimming managed to hold a major event in Manchester, and achieved 25,000 viewers on their YouTube channel for totally free coverage. And because of this, (and previous events being streamed in the same way), they could go to sponsors and get sponsorship because they could point to verifiable numbers and say “hey, we can get your brand in front of this many eyes”. Hell, if a hockey game could even get 20% of those numbers, I’d wager some sponsors would pay up for the exposure (given it would be similar or more than they would get from purely bums on seats).

Now, I’m not saying it would be easy, but promoting the games would be relatively cheap. Using targeted advertising n, say, Facebook, aimed at people who like hockey, and sports in general could attract a fair few curious souls. As could simply building a “street team” of fans willing to go into Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, Instagram, etc to promote the games to everyone they know.

Of course, this almost certainly won’t happen. British ice hockey is far too short sighted and insular to try this. When the owners of the biggest 2 teams in the country try not to stream games lest it hurt the live gate, seeing it as a replacement for attending rather than an ancillary income stream that could (and if used properly should) actually boost revenues. British ice hockey is stuck somewhat in the past, seeing itself as a purely “live event” spectacle. That worked 20-25 years ago when the ISL formed. But the potential new hockey fans are a digital generation. They expect to be able to access their favourite activates online. And the ad hoc, club by club, aimed at existing fans only approach just won’t cut it.

If the sport wants to emerge from this pandemic in a new, stronger form then it needs to take some risks. Rather than whining about how the Government hasn’t helped them, or targeting a dwindling audience at higher and higher costs, we need someone to be brave and say “lets do this”. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but if you don’t try, how will you ever know?

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