Over the course of the pandemic, NHL clubs have been forced to innovate more than ever before. Here in South Philly at the Wells Fargo Center, we’ve made dozens of innovations to our game-day experience, and many of those are here to stay. We’ve changed the way we refresh the air in our arena by investing in a new, $11-million HVAC system. We’ve made it possible for fans to manage and pay for their parking, tickets, food and retail experiences entirely through their phones. We’ve even been able to decrease the environmental impact of our building’s operations. Almost every part of attending a Flyers game is easier and safer than ever before.
In many ways, there is a new normal that’s actually better than the way it was before the pandemic. There’s one forced innovation, though, that simply doesn’t work for the long term, and that’s restricting members of the media from the dressing rooms.
Given the difficult circumstances we’ve faced these past few years, interviews and press conferences conducted virtually have sufficed as a temporary measure. But the fact is that when reporters and columnists can’t speak face to face with players and coaches, something fundamental is lost, and it just isn’t the same. It’s not the same for players and coaches who want to explain to trusted reporters what they’re working on and candidly discuss the team’s successes and challenges. It’s not the same for the members of the media who put in the hard work of building relationships and trust that can only be established in person. And most importantly, it’s not the same for our fans, who aren’t able to get to know their favorite players’ personalities beyond the game highlights and too-often-bland post-game press conferences. Both the NHL and individual clubs are marketing players in new and creative ways, but there’s no denying that reporters and columnists bring a different, crucial perspective that fans crave.
Of course, there is the obvious caveat that health and safety have to be prioritized, and if we see troubling new COVID variants or dangerous increases in the spread and severity of the virus, we have to respond accordingly. But if it can be done safely – and right now, it can – we should return media to dressing rooms next season. We’re already seeing reporters back in MLB dressing rooms, and earlier this month, CJ McCollum, the president of the NBA Players Association, made clear he understands the importance of reporter access in NBA dressing rooms, too.
We should do the same, and we have to resist the unspoken but unmistakable preference by some in our sport to push away the cameras and reporters while scoffing at the role they play in creatively marketing and engaging fans in our players and our game. We can’t dismiss media access as an annoyance or a distraction – that simply won’t work for our sport anymore. Right now, the NHL is seeing record
growth, TV ratings are strong, a new generation of young stars is capturing the attention of fans, and this year’s playoffs were incredibly exciting.
But make no mistake, we need to market our sport, our league and our players more than ever before. League-wide, attendance hasn’t fully rebounded yet, and we need to reconnect fans with the incredible experience of live hockey. Plus, in an ever-diversifying media market, we’re competing for attention, clicks and eyeballs every day, and we can’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to bringing attention and passion to hockey. At the end of the day, that’s what drives attendance, viewership and our ability to continue growing the game.
So, we need all the help we can get, and that includes help from members of the media, who are critical to bringing the color, context, detail and passion of the NHL to sports fans everywhere. To do that properly, the media needs to be in the dressing rooms when the season begins.
In the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinal, the Flyers played the Penguins, and after multiple recent playoff matchups, the rivalry was red-hot. In Game 3, tensions boiled over, and Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux dropped the gloves, prompted in part by Crosby knocking away Flyers winger Jakub Voracek’s glove on the ice. After the game, Sam Carchidi, then with the Philadelphia Inquirer, was in the Penguins’ dressing room, asking Crosby about the night’s events, and after some initial, measured responses, Crosby burst out: “I don’t like them…I don’t like any guy on their team.”
If you know anything about Philly, you can probably guess our fans took that and ran with it. Within days, custom T-shirts were made mocking the quote, and the next time Crosby took the ice in South Philly, every fan in the building made it clear they’d heard his words loud and clear. Ten years later, any diehard Flyers fan still remembers that series and that quote, and it’s part of our franchise’s history, all because a reporter was in the room to get the real story.
Our sport and our league need that kind of reporting again, and during the Cup final, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly said during their press conference that the league wants to get back to full access for media. That’s exactly the kind of leadership we need, and as I speak with other club presidents, it’s clear they also understand how important this issue is for our sport.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Flyers won that series against the Penguins.