August 26, 2010
In the last year, 106 credentials were issued by the NHL to bloggers for events ranging from the Draft in Los Angeles to exclusive interviews. It's a number that continues to grow each season as traditional media coverage of hockey continues to decline, and the NHL remains well ahead of its professional sports peers in blogger access.
The NHL's 30 teams, meanwhile, are free to develop their own individual policies for alternative media access to events, practices and games. Some, like the Washington Capitals, are famously liberal in their credentialing. Others, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, are slowly warming to the notion of increased credentialing for bloggers (which is what happens when you have a cavernous new press box to fill).
Credentialed bloggers usually enjoy the same access as a newspaper or radio reporter on a game night: a seat in the press box, fresh popcorn and access to the teams' dressing rooms for postgame interviews. They cover the game, pass information to their audience, and have done so for the last several years without many incidents of unprofessional behavior, despite approaching the coverage from a fan's perspective.
Yet several prominent NHL franchises, including the New York Rangers and Edmonton Oilers, have strict "no blogger" policies in their arenas. They don't see them as working journalists, and they certainly don't see a need for them to have access to cramped locker rooms after the game.
On Monday, these teams emphatically voiced those concerns during an annual preseason conference call between NHL executives and team media-relations directors. Their issue: If my team doesn't credential bloggers in its home arena, why should bloggers haves access to my team's locker room on the road?
In essence, these teams wish to see bloggers become a second-class citizenry in the press box: Given a 'B-grade' credential that allows them on press row and in the home-team dressing room, but prohibits them from interacting with players from the visiting team if that team has a policy against alt-media access.
So, for example, the Rangers don't credential bloggers at MSG; so bloggers credentialed at Verizon Center in D.C. wouldn't be able to do interviews in the visitors' locker room when the Rangers are in town.
Which actually sounds a lot more accommodating than another proposal floated on the call, in which bloggers were to be kept in a holding pen near the autograph seekers in the bowels of the arena until someone showed up to speak.
Yes, they were serious.
If that scenario sounds familiar, there's a reason it should: All of it has happened before and, apparently, could happen again.
In 2007, the New York Islanders responded to the growing number of alt-media covering the struggling franchise with the NYI Blog Box: a media relations experiment that saw several bloggers selected by the team to sit in a designated area in the arena, with a credential that only allowed "guarded access to Islanders players and staff and no access to visiting players at all," according to Off Wing Opinion's Eric McErlain.
Of course, it also encouraged cheering, shouting and pretzel consumption, too, which made it reviled sight-unseen by many journalists. But over time, the Blog Box evolved into something far less restrictive, and is now in its fourth season.
What some NHL teams openly suggested on Monday's call was a return to those humble beginnings of restricted access for bloggers and prohibited interaction with players; undermining years of new media's uphill battle for respect from the League, teams and veterans of traditional media.
The NHL, in fact, has accepted bloggers as part of its press corps even as some teams refuse to.
"Blogs are the original social media, and at the League level, social media is an important audience development device," said Mike DiLorenzo, the League's director of social media marketing and strategy, and also director of business communications.
"As a first step we've tried to cultivate relationships with bloggers, and build some mutual respect. Expanding their access at League events may be a natural follow-on for those blogs that demonstrate that they can cover League events with the requisite quality and sensibility."
But the conflict between the NHL's blog-friendly policy and the closed-press-box policies of some teams may have actually sparked this week's discussion of restricted access.
According to multiple sources speaking on background, a New York Rangers blogger affiliated with SB Nation was credentialed by the NHL for the 2010 Draft in Los Angeles. The Rangers were reportedly upset at his presence because the blogger was associated with a "Fire Sather" rally in March that targeted the Rangers' beleaguered general manager. The Rangers, and other teams, viewed this as a writer "crossing over" into "irresponsible" fan behavior.
It was someone the Rangers do not credential, but the NHL did; so the Rangers, and like-minded teams, suggested a change in policy that would offer them more control over access to their personnel away from MSG.
Of course, this suggestion asks more questions than it answers: What constitutes a "blogger" in 2010? What would it mean for someone with a season credential? How does one team know what the other team's policy on media access is?
And, considering the patchwork of different blogger access policies around the League: Should the NHL supersede all of this confusion by setting a League-wide policy for access?
(The answer to that last question should be a resounding "no." Not only because different markets deal with different levels of media coverage, but because the teams that are anti-blog have some very influential voices and some very sympathetic ears in the NHL's media relations department.)
While the whole "bloggers vs. mainstream media" fight has grown wearisome -- with a few notable exceptions -- the fight for respect from media-relations gatekeepers has never been more imperative for the alt-hockey media.
It's a fight against misconceptions, like the one voiced on Monday's conference call about bloggers having "no accountability" ... in a media landscape that now sees nearly every prominent hockey blog with some affiliation to a large, corporate network. It's not 2006 anymore; everyone has a boss to complain to now.
It's a fight to find common-ground with those teams that simply won't accept new media as media; to the point where, according to a source with the NHL, blog networks like SB Nation and Bleacher Report have reportedly suggested using "pool reporters" who would attend games on an all-access credential and collect information for other bloggers.
And it's a fight to convince traditional media that bloggers are permanent and valid allies in the press box; developing a mutual respect where, say, a newspaper writer in New York could argue on behalf of the alt-media when the Rangers deny them access.
(In full disclosure: I'm a member of the Profession Hockey Writers Association, and working to help determine the eligibility of bloggers for PHWA membership. It's an organization whose advocacy and influence could certainly make a difference when it comes to issues of locker room access for new media.)
Monday's conference call didn't produce a concrete policy, nor are the NHL's 30 teams expected to agree on one for this season. But it revealed strong support from powerful franchises to restrict blogger access to their players and coaches --even if those bloggers are recognized as working media by another team -- and those restrictions could begin appearing in the next several months.
New media has helped change the way fans consume NHL news, views and information. But it's clear that some teams are ignorant of the maturation of the alt- media -- don't they know it's the new golden age?! -- and have no interest in engaging those bloggers and their audiences to influence their coverage with an open-door policy. Because it's much easier, and perhaps satisfying, to slam it shut.
Which is why one Western Conference team, during this week's call, said no bloggers are getting in their building "without a ticket."