2017 Hockey Project – Coverage of Superstars
By Kyle Morel
When examining the coverage of NHL Superstars in comparison to other sports, it is easy to start by looking at the NBA as well. The two leagues share a number of similarities: 82-game seasons, seasons running from the fall to early summer and playoff formats consisting of four best-of-seven rounds.
Apart from these traits, however, the media coverage of star players in each sport is also an important factor to consider. While team success is the ultimate goal for every player, having athletes whom fans recognize and admire is what often boosts the league’s status.
With this in mind, my task to study how NHL stars stacked up to the top players in the NBA, I selected five players among the NHL’s elite and compared them individually to five basketball players who shared either a geographic location or background. The five hockey players chosen were Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators.
For two of the hockey players analyzed, it was easy to find a suitable NBA counterpart in basketball, as both Ovechkin and Kane play in cities with NHL and NBA teams. Thus, I selected the Washington Wizards’ John Wall and the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, respectively.
For the remaining three NHL players, who each play in markets that do not feature an NBA team, I focused on similarities between the athletes rather than any geographic connection. The most obvious comparison is that of Crosby and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. As individuals, there are lots of similarities between them: both were viewed by experts as once-in-a-generation talents as teenagers, both were selected No. 1 overall in their draft year, and both are widely considered to be the best player in their league more than a decade into their professional careers.
I also chose to compare McDavid and the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, as I believe these two athletes can be considered the future of the NHL and NBA, respectively. Having just turned 20 years old, McDavid is much younger than the 28-year-old Curry, but both players have recently emerged as prominent figures in their sport and appear poised to remain there for at least the next few years.
Subban was the most problematic in terms of finding a comparable athlete in the NBA. I eventually selected James Harden of the Houston Rockets, as both he and Subban are somewhat polarizing figures in their sports. The two are generally regarded as very good players, but each has perceived flaws that have affected public perception of them. Harden’s detractors cite his alleged shortcomings on defense, while Subban’s outsized personality and sometimes antagonistic playing style have led some to question his commitment to the ultimate team sport. Fair or not, these opinions have contributed to both player’s profiles and make for an effective comparison between the two.
The process for determining how often a star athlete is covered was simple: I looked at a local publication’s website for any headlines containing the player’s name for a three-week period, from January 1 to January 21, 2017. These headlines were mainly from written articles, but some came from other types of content like videos and podcast transcripts. This method allowed for a fairly quick search while still ensuring that all media relevant to the player was considered.
Since Ovechkin and Wall play in the same market, I selected the Washington Post, Washington’s most widely circulated newspaper, to study both of them. Using the same logic, I chose the Chicago Tribune to compare Kane and Butler; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for Crosby, the Edmonton Journal for McDavid and the Tennessean for Subban. For their counterparts James, Curry and Harden, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, San Jose Mercury-News and Houston Chronicle were chosen.
In general, the NBA players’ names appeared in significantly more headlines for their local news outlets than the NHL players did. This is understandable to an extent; there are far fewer players on NBA rosters for publications to cover, and hockey often prides itself on being the ultimate team sport absent of any individual emphasis. Still, the difference in coverage, as well as the types of stories about each player, was noteworthy.
In the first three weeks of 2017, Ovechkin’s name was tied for the most prominent of any of the five NHL players I studied, appearing in 11 Washington Post headlines over the span. This total was undoubtedly boosted by his pursuit of 1,000 points at the beginning of my study, as several of the articles dealt with his statistical greatness. One story mentioned his chase of the milestone, and another recapped the night he reached it. This led to a piece in which a former teammate summarized Ovechkin’s ability and another debating his place among Washington, D.C.’s best athletes.
While Ovechkin’s 11 headlines in 21 days may seem impressive, consider that John Wall nearly doubled that total, with his name mentioned in headlines in 20 over the same time at the same publication. These stories also dealt with a wider range of topics aside from typical game recaps. There was a light hearted piece about Wall’s “happy dance” after one win, while another referenced his comments after President Obama’s farewell address.
Kane, though arguably as big an NHL star as Ovechkin, only featured in five headlines on the Chicago Tribune website in the three-week period. One story was a game recap, while another consisted of Kane praising teammate Marian Hossa’s lengthy career—two articles in which Kane is not exactly the main focus. Of the remaining three stories, only one, about his selection to the All-Star game, dealt specifically with his on-ice play. There was a piece about Kane’s inclusion on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list along with one detailing a humorous punishment he enforced after winning a bet with teammate Jonathan Toews.
Kane’s Chicago counterpart, the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, appeared in at least seven headlines in the Tribune during the span (I say “at least” because I was unable to sift through all stories on the website chronologically from Jan. 12 to Jan. 18 after first counting on the 11th). Unlike Kane, whose individual athletic achievements were not extensively covered, Butler was the subject of several such articles in the first three weeks of January. One addressed his potential as a player, and another involved adulation from first-year veterarn teammate Dwyane Wade. There was also one story that indirectly spoke of Butler’s stardom, when Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg compared him to Russell Westbrook.
The comparison between Crosby and James, the respective best players in the NHL and NBA, was perhaps the most interesting of any of the matchups studied. Crosby, for all of his accolades and media attention throughout the league, appeared in a grand total of four headlines in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during the three-week period. One of the four stories was not even about Crosby; instead, it talked about fellow Penguin, Evgeni Malkin, producing in the shadow of his more high-profile teammate. Two others focused on the All-Star Game: one in which Crosby and Malkin were named to the team, and another about Crosby being named captain. In the end, the only article dealing with Crosby’s non-exhibition play discussed the chance of him scoring 50 goals in 50 games.
James, on the other hand, surpassed Crosby’s total number of articles in just one night, with his name appearing in six headlines on the Cleveland Plain-Dealer website on Jan. 16 alone. Granted, that night centered on a showdown with the Golden State Warriors in a rematch of the past two NBA Finals, so the amount of stories was naturally going to be high. But James was also featured in 11 articles over a three-day span, so the matchup against Golden State is not solely responsible for the increased coverage. Whatever the reasons may be, it is certainly noteworthy that the NBA’s most famous player appeared in nearly three times as many headlines in three days as the NHL’s star player did in three weeks.
Connor McDavid, the 20-year-old Oilers’ captain and perceived successor to Crosby as the league’s top player, had a relatively impressive showing for a small-market team, with 10 headlines mentioning his name in the Edmonton Journal over three weeks. Surely, part of this total can be attributed to Edmonton having no other major professional teams with whom McDavid has to compete, and having his own section on the publication’s website certainly helps as well. Nevertheless, the 10 articles leave McDavid one behind Ovechkin as the most frequently covered NHL player of the five I studied.
McDavid’s coverage is also notable for the wide variety of stories about him; from a story about the chemistry with his linemates to one about a budding rivalry with Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie Auston Matthews, the articles go beyond simply recapping his performance in an individual game. His high level of play in less than two full years as an NHL player also garnered a bold prediction in one piece: that he will lead the long-struggling Oilers to the Stanley Cup next year.
Similar to the Ovechkin-Wall situation, McDavid’s headline count does not look as remarkable when compared to Steph Curry, the NBA player most comparable to McDavid due to his being the heir apparent to LeBron James. Curry’s name popped up in 19 San Jose Mercury-News headlines over three weeks, nearly doubling McDavid in this department. There are likely a few reasons for this high count: Curry plays in the more popular Bay Area market, has led his team to the past two NBA Finals and was part of the aforementioned meeting with James and the Cavaliers that featured numerous storylines.
As expected, much of the stories focused on Curry’s on-court play, while others dealt with other interests like the debut of his new Under Armour shoe. There was even a story dedicated to Curry’s appearance on the cartoon Family Guy—an indication that he is considered more marketable outside of sports than McDavid.
The final NHL player in the study, P.K. Subban, matched Ovechkin by making 11 headlines on the Tennessean website during the span. Subban’s total was likely buoyed by an injury he suffered in December, as nearly all of the stories were dedicated to his recovery.
For instance, one article came out on New Years’ Day after he was placed on injured reserve; another noted his return to practice for the first time in almost a month. Subban finally returned to action just before the end of the three-week period, which the Tennessean referenced in its headline of the game’s recap. The site also included a postgame video of Subban discussing his return to the lineup.
Once again, the NHL player’s sum failed to measure up to the NBA player’s, as the Houston Chronicle mentioned James Harden in 19 of its headlines over 21 days. Furthermore, as seen with fellow NBAers above, a majority of the articles focus on Harden and his ability as a basketball player.
There was a game story in which Harden is compared to Michael Jordan and LeBron James as well as a separate piece including Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr likening Harden to Joe Dumars, a star of the 1980s and 90s. Another article detailed how to defend Harden, while a feel-good story featured his meeting with a 100-year-old fan. It is notable that Subban is widely considered one of the most outgoing personalities in the NHL, yet his exposure in his local publication trails far behind that of the more reserved Harden.
As evidenced by the 10 players researched, it seems that basketball players receive considerably more coverage than hockey players individually—but why? First, it is necessary to examine how reporting in the NHL has changed throughout the years. Stephen Whyno ’07, who covers the NHL for the Associated Press, believes it has increased significantly overall.
“From talking to colleagues who worked in the ’80s and ’90s, there’s much more coverage now,” he wrote in an email, “and as in every sport, athletes and teams don’t let you in as much or as close as back then.” Whyno also remarked that morning skates for teams are now “must-cover events” to potentially break stories online, whereas there was little need to report on them in the pre-internet era.
Greg Wyshynski ’99, a hockey writer and editor for Yahoo Sports, thinks social media’s role in speeding up the reporting process has changed the industry altogether—though not all of it in a good way.
“The speed of it all has really affected things like accuracy and depth of reporting. It’s become more important to be first than to have a story nailed down,” Wyshynski wrote via email. “Blogs and digital media have forsaken their own responsibility to value-add to stories in an effort to juice clicks and appear to be insiders themselves.”
While social media has affected all sports, Whyno believes the NHL has been relatively slow in using it to market players. He also thinks the players themselves are partially to blame.
“I think social media in hockey lags behind other sports as far as athletes go because hockey players are less likely to want to post individual thoughts and opinions when brought up in a team environment,” he said.
This team-first mentality is another factor that could help explain the NHL’s marketing of its star players. The league generally dissuades its athletes from becoming larger than their team, so the athletes avoid excessively showing their personalities.
“Just look at the NHL All-Star Game, which jettisoned a fantasy hockey draft (that worked) and a fun prop-comedy skills competition,” Wyshynski said in reference to the league canceling two events popular among fans earlier this year. “In both cases, it’s because the players didn’t want to look bad in trying to entertain. And the league faces this constantly, with players saying they don’t want to be out of their element or mocked.”
Wyshynski also referred to the NHL’s weekly “rivalry night” on the NBC Sports Network as another example of prioritizing teams over individuals, though he admitted that the league’s advertising of players has to be different from leagues like the NBA.
“I think the NHL is in a tough spot because it can’t market stars like other sports, because someone like Auston Matthews is only on the ice a third of the game,” he said. “But it’s also made an attempt to sell ‘rivalries’ as a big thing, and anyone that’s experienced the NHL in the last 30-40 years knows, the rivalries we see today are watered down in comparison to the blood feuds of the past.”
Whyno agreed that the league emphasizes its teams first, and he also believes that the average fan does not care about seeing games unless their favorite team is playing—two major reasons why the successes of top players are not as widely recognized as in the NBA.
“The NHL has doubled down its promotion of teams first instead of players,” Whyno said. “It’s a hockey culture thing to care more about the logo on the front of a jersey than the name on the back, and that trickles down.
“There’s also a strange phenomenon that in hockey way more than in other sports, I believe fans only want to watch their team play and won’t watch others,” he continued. “Is that because they’re not drawn to the big stars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin? Not sure. But the NBA Finals get so much attention because they’re usually watched by gigantic national audiences.”
“Ultimately, the NHL’s biggest problems are two-fold in the U.S.: not enough mainstream media reporting on or supporting the sport, and not enough people playing it and accepting it as a mainstream sport while growing up,” Wyshynski said. “The good news is that the latter is changing.”
Wyshynski’s parting words offer optimism for the future of the NHL in the media. If the number of viewers and participants continues to rise in the next few years, there will most likely be a similar increase in media coverage and exposure to the public. For now, though, the best hockey players in the world continue to trail the best basketball players based on their coverage as individuals.
Kyle Morel is a Philip Merrill College of Journalism undergraduate student.