Every so often, I find myself asking myself that very question whenever I see a take or opinion that differs from my own opinion on any given topic. And it could be a flaw of mine that I live in my own bubble where I wind up reassuring myself that I am actually correct and it must be everybody else who is wrong, but that doesn’t stop me from coming to that ultimate conclusion.
Full disclosure...I’m old. That particular quote is from an episode of The Simpsons way back in 1994, and was a popular meme back in 2013. The fact I’m making these kinds of references should be a pretty clear indicator that I may indeed be out of touch, just like Principal Skinner was when he thought a truant Bart Simpson might be spending time at the Springfield Museum or the 4-H Club while playing hookie from school. But that hasn’t stopped me from looking at any particular innovation or change side-eyed and immediately looking for a way to dismiss or disparage it if I don’t happen to personally agree with it or understand it.
Case in point, ESPN’s “Frozen Frenzy” and the NHL experimenting by not only having all 32 teams in action on any given day, but with staggered start times so hockey fans could not miss a second of the action.
On the surface, it sounds like a wonderful idea. The diehard hockey fan is given a “Red Zone”-style broadcast that jumps from game to game so they see all of the big moments from every game. The staggered start times allows the viewers to not have to sit through intermissions when all the games that start at 7:10pm hit the break around the same time. In fact, if you’re watching your favorite team, you can flip over to see what else is going on during those long breaks.
Is it actually a great idea though? Will it help the league become more popular? Or is the NHL simply borrowing an idea from another far more successful league and doing it worse?
Why Does NFL Red Zone Work?
Before we talk about the NHL’s iteration with “Frozen Frenzy”, let’s talk about why the NFL, and by proxy the Red Zone channel, are so successful.
The NFL is the most popular sports league in the US for a lot of reasons. Their regular season is the shortest of all of the major sports, giving more meaning to every single contest. The stakes are incredibly high. People like to joke that NFL is short for “Not For Long”, but there’s a lot of truth to that. The average NFL career only lasts 3 seasons. If you can’t hack it as a player, you’ll quickly be replaced, and if you can’t hack it as a coach, you won’t be a head coach for very long. Football players are some of the best athletes in the world and football fans like seeing these players perform incredible athletic feats. Football is also a very violent sport and people like to see car crashes on the field. Add in the popularity of fantasy football and sports betting, and sprinkle in some pop culture crossover appeal when a future Hall of Fame player starts dating the most famous woman in the world, and there’s something for everyone.
The NFL Red Zone channel is a perfect vehicle for fans to consume all of the big moments from the other games around the league without paying an exorbitant fee for Sunday Ticket. The NFL does a good job balancing the early slate of games (typically between 6-9 games on any given week) versus the late afternoon (usually 3-4 games) with at least one compelling matchup in each window to primarily focus on. The flow of an NFL game and the amount of down time between plays presents a perfect opportunity to jump around from game to game in whip-around coverage to capture all of the big plays. Add in a likable host in Scott Hanson who doesn’t overdo it with fake, manufactured energy, and a promise to show seven hours of commercial-free football that they deliver on every single week, and it’s the preferred way for fans to watch football even if they already have a favorite team. The fact that so many fans go through the trouble to multi-screen so they can watch their favorite team and Red Zone simultaneously is a testament to the great job NFL Network does with their production.
It’s true that the NFL and NHL share some similarities, such as athleticism, violence, and betting/fantasy appeal, but the NHL is nowhere near as popular as the NFL in the US. The NFL is a global phenomenon while the NHL is a niche league. The NFL regular season is a sprint while the NHL regular season (and most leagues, for that matter) overstays its welcome. That’s not to say people don’t love the league or love their team, but for many sports fans, the NHL takes a clear backseat to its more popular American counterparts. You have to be a real diehard to watch 82 regular season games of any NHL team, and you have to be a real sicko to do that year after year regardless of how bad the team might be.
What Kind of Fan Are You?
If you’re reading this on All About the Jersey, a New Jersey Devils-centric website, you are most likely a New Jersey Devils fan. Whether you are a Devils fan first and a hockey fan second or vice versa is up to your personal preference. I can only speak for myself, and when it comes to the Devils and the NHL, I’m a Devils fan first and foremost, with the rest of the league itself being a distant second. That differs from my football fandom, which I would say is split equally between the Giants and the league itself.
I don’t believe in telling other people how to be a fan, nor do I believe in telling them what they should do in their free time. If you’re a big enough hockey fan where you want to watch other teams that aren’t your favorite team in your spare time, more power to you. For me, there’s only so many hours of free time in the day, so its an uphill battle to ask me to check out Sharks-Panthers or Blues-Jets while the Devils are playing. And with all due respect to the Rangers-Flames, Coyotes-Kings, or Flyers-Golden Knights, if they were playing those games in my backyard, I’d draw the blinds. I’m not interested. There’s only so much regular season hockey I’m going to get into if its not the Devils, and that aint it.
For me, the NHL is already behind the eight-ball asking me to check out Sharks-Panthers or Blues-Jets while the Devils are playing. The Devils game was scheduled to start at 7:15pm ET, and I was invested in that game until its conclusion. After the Devils defeated the Canadiens, I made a point to watch as much as I could of “Frozen Frenzy” to have a good feel for it. So what did I think?
How Was the Actual “Frozen Frenzy” Program?
In a word....fine.
The first thing that disappointed me was that unlike Red Zone, Frozen Frenzy was not commercial-free. And while I get how TV networks make their money from ad revenue, it runs counter to the goal of airing uninterrupted hockey to make sure you’re getting your 2 or 3 commercial breaks in per hour. Red Zone has an advantage in that they’re a specialty channel that is part of most cable/TV packages and only airs from 1-7pm Eastern 18 Sundays a year, but ESPN simulcast Frozen Frenzy on ESPN2 and ESPN+. ESPN and the NHL were likely smart not to stick this exclusively behind the ESPN+ paywall, and its unrealistic to expect a network TV program to air for 6+ hours commercial free. But when you’re comparing to the gold standard, it needs to be noted.
I thought Frozen Frenzy did a decent job showing all of the important moments from each game. Hockey is not easy to jump in and out of with how the game flows, but ESPN did a solid job identifying when some teams were going to go on the power play or in a 6-on-5 situation late in regulation needing a goal and showed those moments. They also did a good job backtracking to any goals that we might’ve missed during live coverage or during a commercial.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to John Buccigross and Kevin Weekes in the hosting role. Buccigross has worked at ESPN forever so he’s certainly polished when it comes to switching from one game to another and setting the scene, but there is definitely a bit of a “Pierre McGuire factor” there with him when he wanted to show the audience how smart he is by telling us where (random player) played college hockey that I can do without. If I were a network executive with the goal of trying to attract viewers, I would’ve preferred to have an energetic PK Subban in the analyst role rather than Kevin Weekes and a studio host that isn’t so reliant on schtick (perhaps a Steve Levy, who was doing intermission with Subban and Mark Messier).
I think the biggest issue though isn’t even ESPN’s fault. The matchups just weren’t all that compelling. Anaheim-Columbus might be the NHL equivalent of an Atlanta Falcons-Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchup, in that I get that it has to air in that particular window, but that would be a game I put on if I’m trying to take a nap. Any Edmonton game loses its watchability factor with Connor McDavid injured. The most compelling matchup on paper might’ve been Carolina-Tampa Bay, but the game itself was a dud and mostly aired while the Devils were on. I don’t need 16 rivalry matchups on the slate, but a handful of well-spaced out rivalry games like Toronto-Boston, New York-New York, Dallas-Vegas, and Vancouver-Seattle would’ve given this more of a “must-see” feel and helped make it an event.
Overall though, it was fine.
Is “fine” what you really want from a supposed showcase event though? Because for me, “fine” is just fine. It’s not great, and when all I have to compare it to is a more polished program like “Red Zone” that IS legitimately great, it’s not ideal.
Who Actually Benefits From Staggered Start Times?
The answer to this question is fairly obvious. If you are the type of aforementioned diehard hockey fan who will sit on the couch for 6+ hours and watch continuous hockey, you probably think this is great. I know these people exist because they’re very vocal every other night of the season when the start times are more traditional and it turns out there are 4-5 games all at intermission at the same time.
If you’re a season ticket holder for any of the respective home teams, your might have mixed feelings on how you feel about the start times, but a good rule of thumb might be that for every person thrilled the game starts 30 minutes later than usual, there’s someone who is annoyed the game is ending later and their routine is being thrown off. Most people work 9-5 jobs they hate, and they’re probably not thrilled they lose an hour of sleep on the backend because their regularly scheduled game started later.
The starting times are what they are for a reason, and its not to placate certain pockets of Hockey Twitter who like to complain about such things. The times are what they are to get as many fans in the local market in the arena and to get as many fans in the local market who can’t attend to watch on TV.
Targeting October 24th To Do This Was a (Bad) Choice
If I were going to stage an event where my goal was to get as many eyeballs on my league and product as possible, I’d probably pick a weekend as opposed to a weekday, stagger the schedule out even more where there are matinees, and try to own the day.
I’m not going to criticize the NHL for choosing to go up against MLB with Game 7 of the NLCS in Philadelphia because they didn’t choose to do that. The MLB postseason schedule tends to be released late in the regular season and it wouldn’t be fair to give the NHL grief for a series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies that wound up going the distance. And even the NHL is smart enough to avoid Monday and Thursday nights, as that is the NFL’s turf.
I do question why one would choose to go up against NBA Opening Night though, especially if the goal is to be targeting some of the more casual sports fans who might not otherwise check out hockey. Choosing to compete against some major star power with four all-time greats in LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic all in action the same night is not ideal, especially when the NBA has mastered the art of not only promoting their star players, but attracting the younger viewing demographic that every other league craves.
Who Is This Actually For?
The biggest question I think needs to be asked whenever a new product comes into existence is “Who is this for?”. It makes sense, as you wouldn’t make a product without a target demographic to sell it to.
Is this for diehard hockey fans? Perhaps, although I don’t know how invested any of those fans are going to be until THEIR team’s game ends. I made a point to check out some of the coverage once the Devils beat the Canadiens, and I thought from a technical standpoint, it was an ok production. The lack of quality matchups though limited my interest as a whole though. If anything, the NHL probably annoyed just as many diehards who have to alter their plans when attending games as they did to please those who just want an extra 20 minutes to get to the arena coming straight from work.
Is this for casual sports fans? I’d say not really unless they have a general curiosity. But competition is fierce when it comes to attracting viewers. I would think more people watched Game 7 of the NLCS and both NBA games. That’s also not counting the litany of people who are watching other programming, whether its catching up on a favorite show on their streaming platform of choice or some other live or scripted TV program that live sports typically compete against.
Conversely, did the NHL grab any headlines outside of the hockey-centric bubble? It would not appear so. As of this writing, the top headlines on ESPN’s website are related to the NLCS, the Denver Nuggets, the Michigan football sign-stealing scandal, Bob Melvin taking the San Francisco Giants managerial job, and Kareem Jackson’s suspension being reduced on appeal. Such is life for a niche league that few people outside of the hardcore, diehard fans pay attention to.
How Can This Be Better In the Future?
I’ve already touched on most of my suggestions throughout this article, but I’ll recap quickly.
Do this on a weekend, preferably a Saturday or Sunday after the football season ends: Obviously, logistics are a factor as many NHL teams share an arena with the NBA team in the same city, but if the NHL can figure out a way to book 16 NHL arenas on one day in October, they can figure it out in February. Particularly when there are 22 NHL arenas that do not share a building with an NBA team. Bill it as “Hockey Day in North America” or whatever you want to call it and go from there.
Because you’re doing it on a weekend, stagger out the starting times throughout the entire day: Want to get kids into watching hockey? Have half the league play matinees, offer some sort of family package to get more children into the building, and get them to the arena. Then after the game is over, you still have hockey on later in the day they can watch before bedtime. After all, its the weekend. Live a little and let the kids stay up until 10pm to watch Jack Hughes do Jack Hughes things.
Have better matchups: I don’t need Gary Bettman to channel his inner Vince McMahon and load up the card like its Wrestlemania. I don’t think I’m asking too much to put a few rivalry games in the mix though. The league tends to overdo it when it comes to sticking Crosby vs. Ovechkin on national TV, but if there was ever a time to do so, maybe a situation like this would warrant that sort of schedule manipulation.
A little less schtick would go a long way: As I write this, I’m watching Buccigross and Weekes dive into a plate of chicken parm prepared by Subban. All I’ll say is that I’ve never seen Scott Hanson scarf down a couple slices of pizza when the 1pm NFL games go to halftime.
“Frozen Frenzy” and the idea to stagger start times might seem like a great idea on paper to grow the game, but I think its fair to question who this product was actually for and who actually cares at the end of the day. Its nice that we basically got a continuous stream of hockey from 6pm Eastern on until the Philadelphia-Vegas game ended, but I don’t know how much it was worth it to change people’s routines and potentially annoy your biggest fans in the process. Maybe a few fans were created in the process, although it seems more likely judging from any other metric that the casual fans and so-called “undecided voters” were watching something else. Perhaps with a few production tweaks and a few bigger picture changes in mind to present better matchups, the people who clamor for staggered starting times would have some validity with their takes. Instead, we got a bunch of games that were just there as they would be on any other Tuesday night in the regular season.
Maybe I’m way off base thinking there’s a better way of doing things, and I do give the league credit for trying something new, but I also feel like Principal Skinner declaring the children are wrong when an idea that I think is kind of silly doesn’t really work all that well in execution.
How much of the “Frozen Frenzy” coverage did you watch? Were you into it or are you not a fan of the ESPN production? Are you like me in that you care about the Devils first and foremost, or will try to check out hockey whenever its on? Are you like me in that you’re confused who this actual product is for? Feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.