Sunday, July 02, 2006

This Season, Hockey is the New Black

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on December 9, 2005.)

I’m gonna let you in on a secret. The fringes of sports media are what Seattle was for music in the late 80’s. They’re the barrio in Los Angeles where the first kid wore his baseball hat sideways. They’re Liverpool for the Beatles, Springfield for basketball, and Studio 54 for STDs. The fringes of media are where the next big thing in sports is hiding out, developing, and getting ready to explode onto your sports radar. And in the fringes these days, college hockey is sexy.

Maybe not Jessica Simpson sexy, but exciting sexy. Sexy like indie rock, back when REM was getting popular and dominating college radio or when Radiohead was getting big. College hockey is exciting and developing like indie rock was back when it was possible to be a mid-major record label. And it’s all happening in the fringes of sports media.

Let’s begin by glancing at some of the schools and places represented in the USA Today men’s ice hockey national rankings: (3) Vermont, (4) North Dakota, (9) New Hampshire (Go Wildcats!) (10) Maine (boo), (12) Colgate, (14) St. Lawrence. If you go by Inside College Hockey’s top 20 the list expands to include (18) Lake Superior State, (20) Bemidji State and a team that just fell out of the top 20 – Alaska Fairbanks. Those schools don’t exactly represent the upper crust of the Nielsen media markets. Honestly, before I started writing this I thought Bemidji was a dog.

College hockey is slowly building a following, like college basketball in the 70s. In the next twenty years, this sport is going to be big, with fans in the major markets who are passionate about it. For now, though, it exists only in the periphery of the important media markets, but on center stage in the fringes. Let’s take a look at a particularly obscure school in a particularly fringe area, Bemidji (is not a) State, and a school I like, the University of New Hampshire. Let’s look at how some newspapers from their areas and see how the fringes cover their own rising star of a sport.

Bemidji State University is a dog school, training loveable mutts for family films and television series… just kidding. No, Bemidji State is public university located in Bemidji, Minnesota, was founded in 1919, and currently has about 5,000 students from almost every state in the country and 40 foreign countries. Their hockey team is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and is doing so with a solid season, sitting atop the College Hockey America conference at 4-2-0, and 9-3-0 overall.

The paper of record is the Bemidji Pioneer, with a circulation of 9,691. Their front page features several rotating pictures of local events, including the construction of the new ice hockey arena. This was a light sports week, as the men’s team had most of the week off. And while the women’s team had two games against Wisconsin, the Pioneer’s sports section inexplicably led with a picture from their November 11th game against Mercyhurst, the seventh best team in the country according to USA Today’s women’s college rankings, which ended in a tie.

The top story, however, was that the local "high school age" boys hockey team, the Bemidji Lumberjacks, suffered a defeat at the hands of the Moorhead Spuds to the tune of 8-4. I say "high school age" team instead of just high school because while the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association has information on the “high school” team (their term) the actual high school, Bemidji High School, seems to want no connection, at least according to their athletics department. Moorhead doesn’t seem to be that way, as Moorhead High lists boys hockey on the school’s website. Interesting quirk of this part of the fringe. Needless to say, the Pioneer’s coverage of the boys is very positive and speaks well of their effort in the loss.

Moving on to UNH, I can speak from experience that most of the state of New Hampshire puts down their maple syrup acoutrements and shovels to support the Wildcats. While the recent and unexpected rise to prominence of its division I-AA football team has excited the state – although don’t get me started about the team getting unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs (this was their year) – the university’s bread and butter of sports success is hockey, both the consistently dominating men's and women’s teams. Both teams are almost always at the top of the Hockey East conference, make the playoffs every year, and the women’s team won the first national championship for women’s hockey in 1998.

UNH has an advantage over Bemidji State – it’s the big show in the state. Bemidji has to compete with the University of Minnesota in addition to other big college hockey centers of influence. In terms of media coverage, they are at best a loveable underdog (pun intended). UNH gets tons of local love.

The Manchester Union Leader gives both hockey teams plenty of coverage, writing of them everyday in the paper’s UNH Notebook section. Big games – against rivals Maine and Boston College, as well as Boston University – get coverage that is the equal of any big SEC football game. And it’s just as fair and balanced.

And I think that’s the comparison that I like the most: college football. For years, college football was not a major sport. There were centers of high popularity, where it was treated as the biggest show on earth and where the media covered it with a fan’s devotion. Out of this, a unique and interesting postseason emerged – the bowl system that haunts the game to this day. It wasn’t until decades after its formation and after numerous rules changes that college football began to assemble the popularity it enjoys today.

College hockey is in the same position now that college football was 80 or more years ago. It isn’t a major sports, existing mostly in the fringe markets or in the fringes of major media markets. In those areas where it is popular, it is extremely popular, with fans and media following it with great devotion. Out of this – and fledgling TV contracts – an entertaining post season ritual has developed – the Frozen Four. Half NCAA basketball tournament, half NHL playoffs, it combines the best of both.

And it’ll be on ESPN or ESPN2 this spring. You should look for it, and check out what the next big thing of sports is. Don’t you wish you could have heard REM at a college bar in Athens during the early 80s? This is your chance to watch and care about the indie rock of sports while it still only exists in the fringes.

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