Being a fan of a niche sport is not a bad thing. Being a fan of a niche sport is a cool thing. The thing is, you have to embrace the nicheness. The nichetude.
Hockey fans, it’s time for us — yes, angry letter writers pining for coverage of the rumored NHL playoffs in this space, us — to embrace the nichetude. The nichitality. The nichecism.
There’s whining in the hockey niche over what happened Saturday on NBC. Game 5 of the Ottawa Senators-Buffalo Sabres playoff series went into overtime, and NBC went to Baltimore.
The network switched to coverage of the Preakness Stakes at 5 p.m. EDT, just before overtime began. Daniel Alfredsson scored at 9:32 of the first extra period to give the Senators a 3-2 win to clinch the series, sending Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The winning goal was scored at about 5:20 EDT. The horses left the gate at about 6:17. An hour of pre-race nonsense over overtime hockey! Shades of “Heidi”!
Except for two things. The overtime period was shown on television, on Versus, which is actually in about three of every four households where NBC is available, though how many of those households know that can probably be counted without benefit of sophisticated electronics. Or removal of hosiery.
And: Way, way more people — about three times as many — want to watch the ponies getting saddled up and the owners talking about what a wonderful, wonderful experience this is and the cadets singing “Maryland My Maryland” than want to watch an NHL playoff overtime period. I’m not one of those people, but I don’t think I’d be a bad person if I were one of them. People want to see what they want to see.
The NHL signed the contract with NBC that gives the network the right to switch away, a right that sports leagues routinely deny networks in TV deals, precisely because of the “Heidi” fiasco in 1969, when NBC switched away from a thrilling Oakland Raiders-New York Jets regular-season game to start the otherwise forgettable TV movie.
That was a horrible call, the result mostly of poor communication, partly due to the relatively primitive technology available at the time. The network brass, unable to get through on jammed phone lines, didn’t have cellphones to tell the guy at the switch to ignore earlier instructions and stick with the game.
Saturday’s call: Not horrible. In fact, NBC would have been crazy not to go to the Preakness, aesthetic considerations of overtime playoff hockey (exciting!) vs. pre-race chazzerai (horses walking, rich people air kissing!) aside.
Hard to muster outrage here at anyone other than the NHL, which mismanaged itself into this position throughout the ’90s and the first half of this decade.
I get a few letters every day complaining that I haven’t been writing about the NHL playoffs. Some exciting hockey going on, people write to remind me, and it’s true. There is. Sunday there was another overtime thriller, the Anaheim Ducks beating the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 on Teemu Selanne’s goal off a horrific turnover, giving the Ducks a 3-2 series lead. The winner will face Ottawa for the Stanley Cup.
There’s also a lot of exciting women’s college softball going on right now. And yet, these same letter writers don’t see the moral imperative for me to write about it. We’re talking about niche sports here. The publication you now hold on your desktop measures page views in the millions, and stories about hockey, not to mention women’s softball, garner them in the dozens. I’m being kind.
Now, one of the things that’s great about this job is that I don’t have to write to page views, and I’m only vaguely aware of the count. That’s because my bosses value things other than just straight page-view numbers. That’s great, but there are limits. As a bartender once said to me when I asked for a glass of water: We’re conducting commerce here.
Hockey fans should accept and embrace this relatively new status as niche-philes. And really, hockey fans, I count myself among you. If I were ever forced to give up the second greatest job in sports — NFL punter is No. 1: You get to be in the NFL; as long as you don’t totally screw up, you’re fine; and if you ever make an actual football play, such as a tackle, you’re a freakin’ hero — I would happily take a job on the hockey beat somewhere.
Niche sports are cool. Each one is like a little subculture. But the trade-off is you can’t complain when you get treated like a niche sport. You just don’t hear fans of curling — my favorite niche sport, as regular readers know — complaining that it doesn’t get much coverage in non-Canadian mass media except to get capped on in Olympic years.
The only reason the NHL still gets anything resembling mainstream coverage in this country is because so many of the most important people in the media are baby boomers who grew up with hockey as one of the Big Four, so it’s in their wiring to think of it that way. But as far as the audience is concerned, hockey has been thrown in the niche pot with bass fishing and BMX.
Maybe it will emerge and reestablish itself as a major, non-niche sport. It has certain historical advantages over sports like lacrosse or arena football or snowboarding that it might be able to leverage, especially before too many of those powerful media players born around midcentury retire.
But for now, and probably for a while, and maybe forever, that’s where hockey is. Nicheville.
Once you get over the disappointment that people with jobs like mine don’t write about your favorite sport very often, once you embrace the nichetocity, there are benefits. Spot someone in an Atlanta Thrashers T-shirt and you can share that nod of recognition, that instant camaraderie that I used to share with someone I’d spot wearing, say, a Fibonaccis T-shirt.
And as long as the niche is pretty big, as hockey’s is, your sport does get covered during its championship or biggest events. That’s why there isn’t much non-niche national coverage of horse racing except around the Triple Crown races, such as Saturday’s Preakness, which knocked hockey off the network air and was won by my favorite horse this year, Curlin, which I like to pretend is named after my favorite niche sport.
See how I brought that all together? That’s one of the things my bosses value aside from page views.
Also: I wash their cars.
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