ESPN Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer, the sports television icon who now provides network-proclaimed "independent examination and analysis of ESPN's media outlets," uncorked a 4,700-word column this week that touched on the network's always-contentious relationship with hockey fans.
Fans that, during the last season, ranted about "anti-hockey bias" and demanded that ESPN cover all sports equally on its flagship program SportsCenter "regardless who they're in bed with."
So Ohlmeyer asked an ESPN vice president to defend the network's coverage of hockey and offered his own evaluation.
Some of it is valid; much of it reinforces the second-class-citizen treatment puckheads have come to expect from the WWL; none of it will make you anticipate a 1-hour "Kovalchuk: The Decision" special on ESPN this week. Which is fine by us, because we can only take so much Jim Gray and questions about nailbiting ...
If you watch ESPN or read ESPN.com/ESPN: The Magazine: Is their coverage of the NHL what you expect for a non-rights holder? Has it gotten better or worse over the last two years?
Ohlmeyer spoke with Mark Gross, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor of studio production, about the network's hockey coverage. Among Gross's defenses:
• "We regularly have NHL plays as part of the top 10, and also offer NHL highlights on ESPN.com and local 'SportsCenters' on our sites for New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles."
• SportsCenter "ran a highlight from the NHL Winter Classic spanning nearly five minutes" on New Year's Day 2010, the second-longest highlight of the show.
• SportsCenter ran a 2-minute highlight from the Pittsburgh Penguins/Washington Capitals game on Super Bowl Sunday, which Gross said was "also our second-longest highlight in the show, behind only the Super Bowl." Because, you know there are just so much sports counter-programming the Super Bowl.
• Barry Melrose and Matthew Barnaby saw more face time on ESPN during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yes, this was a defense.
By no means are we dedicated SportsCenter viewers, but there's no question hockey is an afterthought on the program when we do catch it. That's in the placement of stories and in the inability of anchors to correctly pronounce player names.
Actually claiming that a pretty goal or a big save being included in a Top 10 countdown counts as coverage is the weakest of weak arguments; it's like saying ESPN's the worldwide leader in squirrel-on-water-skis highlights if they pop that goofball highlight into the Top 10.
But ESPN's sports coverage goes beyond SportsCenter. As poorly as the network treats hockey, its Web sites do it some justice.
Pierre LeBrun is one of the most trusted insiders in hockey writing. Scott Burnside can bring the blowtorch in his column writing. Both are doing more video on location at places like the NHL Finals and the Draft. The local ESPN affiliates are starting to provide some strong coverage of specific teams, like Richard Durrett on the Dallas Stars and the Mike Modano(notes) watch.
(We'd love to critique ESPN: The Magazine but We: Don't Read It.)
Ohlmeyer's defense of SportsCenter, and ESPN's editorial approach, is a little frustrating:
In April, when the NHL, NBA, MLB and colleges are all in season, the producers have to whittle the highlights down from 40 to 50 choices. On some Saturdays, there might be as many as 100 games from which to choose.
Editorial decisions are made based on the importance of a game, the excitement it generates, the notoriety that accompanies it, notable performance of an individual, etc. The editorial charge is not to parcel out these slots equally between leagues and teams. The producers make the decision based on their judgment of what's important, newsworthy and entertaining and what "SportsCenter's" audience most wants to see -- and heated discussions often surround that process.
As we've said before about newspapers' lack of coverage when it comes to hockey: It's all about the editors.
When I was an editor at a local paper in the D.C. area, we'd obviously give preference to some high-school sports over others: football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and then likely either baseball or soccer in the spring. But our mission was to serve all audiences as best we could, given limited space and resources.
No, the slots aren't going to be equal when there's a hockey game up against "Monday Night Football," or when ESPN/ABC has the NBA Finals on the same night there's a Stanley Cup Playoff game. But the key for any media entity covering professional sports is to not make segments of fandom feel as if their sport is simply being covered out of function; but, rathers; out of a desire to tell the story, to capture the moment and to do it in a way that attracts previously disinterested viewers to the content.
Which is something a network that counts a highlight in the nightly Top 10 as "hockey coverage" doesn't seem to understand.
Stick-tap to Jonah T. for the story tip.