There was a time when minor league hockey, or really any small market sporting event for that matter, was content with being strictly radio accessible. Play-by-play and color commentary were a thing that people championed, and in some regards still do. It's truly a gift to be able to communicate such a quickly moving sport to the masses who are not presently seeing the game, and just might be 800 miles away from any rink. But radio was then, and this is now.
There's no denying the world that we live in is technology "heavy". The fact that I had to write that sentence seems archaic in nature. We are so ensconced by our techy world that we can't imagine living life without such luxuries. This isn't a rant on why people should try to live without Facebook or why I shouldn't check my email at the dinner table. Instead it's a launching point for a discussion that involves making sports more accessible to the masses.
I've watched, for nearly two seasons, almost every Oklahoma City Barons game via the Neulion/AHL partnership that birthed AHLLive.com. It was intended to be a place where good-hearted hockey fans could watch their local teams play at home, away, or a combination of the two. It's expensive, but worth it if you can't make it to the games. But long before I subscribed to this streaming service, I remember a time when watching a local Oklahoma hockey team play was just a matter of flipping on my television. You see, long before the Oklahoma City Barons existed, the Oklahoma City Blazers had established themselves as the dominate hockey team in the revised Central League. But their dominance in minor-minor-minor league hockey wasn't just on the ice, but also in the advertising department. Part of that solid advertising campaign hinged on broadcasting Oklahoma City Blazers vs. Tulsa Oilers hockey via the local Cox Channel. Dubbed the "Turnpike Series" because of the Kilpatrick Turnpike which connects OKC to Tulsa, these rivalry games were always fun to watch, and they were always readily available for me to digest while on my couch.
The Blazers did some seemingly questionable things that overstep the boundaries of good business practices. They don't deny this fact. Even the Barons comment regularly about the tightening of the "giveaway" mentality that resulted in padded attendance figures. But what the Blazers always did right was give the fans what they wanted. And for me, one of those "right" things was pushing for televised Central League games.
So out of sheer curiosity I contacted Cox Communications (yes, the same group that owns the naming rights to the Cox Center where the Barons play) to ask them about the potential broadcasting of Barons games from the downtown Cox Center. Is it possible? Have the Barons inquired about this? Would Cox offer up a solution for getting this done? Ask and you shall receive.
"Absolutely. Broadcasting games from the Cox Center via the local access Cox Channel is a possibility, but it requires a concerted marketing effort by the Barons ownership," says Roger Hess, the Cox Channel Station Manager, "a marketing effort that hinges specifically on advertising dollars."
In short, what Hess is saying is that games can be broadcast, they can be done quite inexpensively, and the local channeling is available for the taking; the Barons simply have to actively pursue it.
"The Blazers are a great example of how this broadcast marketing plan should work," elaborates Hess, "The Blazers set out to be the dominate team in the Central Hockey League, and so they approached everything in that manner. The telecast was packaged as a small piece to the larger marketing puzzle."
The Blazers had a long history of local sponsorship. When the time came for broadcast possibilities they approached each and every one of those sponsors and offered a selling point that very few Central Hockey League teams could have done -- their ad presence would hit local Oklahoma City homes by way of television. Dasher ads, on-ice logos, product placement, and between period segment sponsors wet the appetite of OKC/Tulsa based companies. And that plan worked beautifully.
Fast forward to 2012, and many teams around the American Hockey League are doing just that. Houston, Chicago, Hamilton, Toronto -- all entice advertisers by adding an additional element of sponsorship through local broadcasts.
"Here in Tulsa, our WNBA team is struggling*. They generate very little revenue, struggle to win, and struggle to sell tickets," says Hess, "but they are required to stream games online, and so they do. The game feeds, mainly jumbotron feed, are sometimes repackaged for television. It's not the greatest quality for a broadcast, but it gets the job done."
*(The Tulsa Shock averaged 4,828 last season which is half the league average)
And this is the key. Simple, straightforward, no frills approach to broadcasting. It has to be this way because it's the most cost effective for minor league teams. In the 90's when the Blazers would sometimes broadcast 12-13 games on television each season, the streaming capabilities were only a futuristic dream. Now, as Hess points out, repackaging for television is easier than it has ever been because the online broadcasts are already present.
"But remember, the team owns the rights to that stream, and they'd have to be the ones to make the broadcast happen. It really is an ownership driven thing," says Hess, "The Blazers made it successful when they were in Oklahoma City because they saw an opportunity for selling things."
And although some readers, primarily Oilers/NHL fans, who read this might wonder why this is such a big deal. For a team that really needs to up the awareness ante, every little bit of facetime helps. Imagine being able to tell your friends, watch the Barons play or DVR them. It just might crack the door for those unwilling to give Oklahoma City hockey a chance. The greatest sales pitch for any product is exposure. I see a Ford Focus on TV, I want it, I'll go test drive it. I like the convenience of that Flowbee I saw at 3am on tv, I'll go online, I'll purchase it. Through exposure, excitement can be generated.
So the decision is in the hands of the Barons. If they find that broadcasting games on television is something worth doing, they'll make it a part of a long term, advertising and marketing plan. And with an NHL parent club like the Oilers, the possibilities of broadcast outreach could extend all the way to Canada. Because once that stream hits the televised airwaves, the world can suddenly indulge in prospect-rich Barons hockey. To me, that's worth the effort.
NOTE: The Barons were unable to comment on this post via phone. They have offered to answer any question regarding this matter at a later date. When those comments are given, the necessary updates will be made to this article. Stay tuned.