Saturday, July 01, 2006

Postcards from the Edge of the 5th Media Market

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on October 19, 2005.)

I’m from New Hampshire. I don’t like Vermont. I honestly believe in the mutual exclusivity of living free or dying. I can parallel park, but it ain’t pretty, and that’s because it wasn’t on my New Hampshire driving test. I love Lake Winnipesaukee, not because it’s a tourist trap, but because I’ve been going for so long I remember when I didn’t know it was a tourist trap. When I’m at a bar, I want Smuttynose beer, preferably the IPA. Massachusetts drivers are the worst.

However, I’m also from New Hampshire. I get mistaken for a Vermonter. I get mocked and ridiculed for my license plate. I need a spot the size of a Hummer to parallel park my Corolla. I’m sick of all those Boston attorneys and MBA types buying the houses on Lake Winnipesaukee. More often than not, the bar I’m at doesn’t have Smuttynose and I have to settle for a Sam Adams. And worst of all, I’m a suburb of Massachusetts and their horrible drivers.

Such are the joys of living on the fringes of a major media market. If you look at Nielsen’s listing of media markets in descending order of population, you’ll note that the number five spot is officially listed as “Boston (Manchester).” That’s crap.

Boston is the media market. Manchester is thrown in there for context, as if to say “It ends up there…somewhere.” When TV types talk about the “Boston media market,” they mean Boston. They don’t mean Manchester or New Hampshire. And there’s the assumption on the part of large media outlets to clump New Hampshire with the center of the media market to which it has been assigned.

We’re assumed to vote for John Kerry because, hey, he’s practically from here. Shows that are based in Boston – Cheers, Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, etc. – are expected to fare just as well in New Hampshire as in Massachusetts. New Hampshire should love Boston sports teams as much as Bostonians because they don’t have anyone else to root for.

That these assumptions appear to be true make it all the more annoying that they’re asserted in the first place. Frequently the results may appear to be the same, but the way New Hampshire got there is far different from how Boston and the bulk of the Boston media market arrived at the same conclusion.

Boston and Massachusetts voted for John Kerry because George W. Bush is too conservative (religiously); New Hampshire voted for John Kerry because George W. Bush isn’t conservative (fiscally) enough. Boston and Massachusetts watch shows based in Boston because they are invested in those shows; New Hampshire watches those shows because we’re too cheap to pay for HBO. Boston and Massachusetts cheer for Boston sports teams because they’re awesome sports teams; New Hampshire cheers for Boston sports teams because they’re awesome sports teams, but out here on the fringes we have other sporting passions that the major markets miss.

New Hampshire is like a lot of fringes on a lot of media markets. We pay more attention to schools and the minors because that’s what we have ownership over. High school sports are big. I haven’t attended class at my New Hampshire high school in over eight years, but my father still devotedly attends every football game and most baseball games, basketball games, and track meets too. He tells me how they do, too. And I care. Despite myself, I care.

Is that unusual? No. Lots of people from everywhere still care about their high schools. But out here on the fringes, these allegiances matter more to us. If all politics are local, then all sports are too. I care about the Red Sox and the Patriots, the Celtics and the Bruins, sure; but I literally grew up with my high school team, and I’m still swayed by my allegiance to it.

And I never went to the University of New Hampshire, but God, I love Wildcats hockey. The NHL sucks (the Bruins are a slight exception), but I care about college hockey. I want UNH to beat Michigan, BC, North Dakota and especially Maine. I hate Maine. I have friends who have a young daughter. Her father’s greatest hope for her is to see her hair streaming out from the back of her UNH hockey helmet. If he has a son, he wants his son’s mullet streaming out from the back of a UNH hockey helmet. There are a lot of people who feel the same way up here.

From school hockey to minor league hockey: the Manchester Monarchs. They’re only five years old, but the whole state was excited about having them play in front of us. Manchester built the Verizon Wireless Arena, a giant facility for them. So big it hosted Britney Spears in concert. I don’t know what that distinction means, exactly, but there’s got to be a lot of teeny-bopper girls, college guys, and dirty old men in the greater Manchester area. So a Britney Spears concert has got to hold a lot of people.

But I digress. New Hampshire digs hockey; when the LA Kings gave us their newest affiliate for safe keeping, we took it very seriously. We made sure we cheered them on as they compiled the best record last year in the American Hockey League.

But as much as New Hampshire likes hockey, we’re Americans. We love football. But what’s a state to do that can’t support a NFL team but wants professional football? That’s right, they get an Arena Football League team. But what’s a state to do that can’t support an AFL team but wants professional football? That’s right, they get an Arena Football League 2 team.

(Wait, anything smaller? Is the XFL still around? What about the USFL? No? Ok. AFL2 it is.)

When the Manchester Wolves moved into the Verizon Wireless Arena a couple years ago, to play during the Monarchs off-season, there was a palpable pulse in the air of the Granite State. What was that Frank Zappa quote about needing a football team and a beer to be a real nation? I think states are like that too. Well, New Hampshire has Smuttynose and the Wolves, who I might add won the East division in the AFL2’s American Conference.

Before minor league hockey and minorest league football, though, New Hampshire had minor league baseball. For years, Nashua and southern New Hampshire rooted for the Nashua Dodgers, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Months after signing Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn’s top affiliate in Montreal, Dodger GM Branch Rickey further broke baseball’s color barrier by signing Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe to play for in the Class B New England League. They played for future Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston, with Campanella winning the League MVP in 1946 and Newcombe being a 19-game winner in 1947. Sadly, within a few years, the Nashua Dodgers had been folded by the big team and professional baseball disappeared from New Hampshire for decades.

In the past five years, though, professional baseball has coming roaring back and won two championships. The Nashua Pride won the Atlantic League Championship in 2000, and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats won the Eastern League Championship in 2004. We rule! With their major league affiliation and brand new stadium, the Fisher Cats in particular were a big deal. The Pride play in an unaffiliated league, but the Cats are AA affiliates of the Toronto Blue Jays. A major league team, eh? With the Fisher Cats, some of the players we cheer for are going to the big show someday.

It’s strange when you think of it in those terms – we cheer for the team whose players are more likely to leave us for something better. It’s like we’re consciously thinking “They could do better, and they know it, but at least we get them for a while.” Is that sad or pathetic somehow? I don’t know. But that’s the flow in media markets – from the fringes to the center.

A lot of New Hampshire’s identity is consumed with swimming upstream from that flow. We don’t want to be Boston North, despite what the good folks at Nielson’s say. We might agree with conclusions from the big market, but we want to do it in our own way. We might root for their sports team, and care about their sports teams, but we’ve got our own that the centers don’t understand. It’s not like they’re a secret; we would be more than happy to sell $50 million in Monarchs merchandise. The centers don’t understand because they don’t bother to look. In media markets, the flow is from the fringes in. Few people swim upstream to the edge. This is a postcard from those fringes, from the edge:

“We’re having a great time out here where you’re not paying attention! Hope you start to follow traffic laws and stop buying waterfront property in New Hampshire! Go Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, Tomahawks, Wildcats, Monarchs, Wolves, Pride, and Fishercats! Love, John”

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