Bad Call

The NHL confronts the dawn of television

A campsite with tents by the water and trees
Illustration by Emily Taylor

On March 9, 1949, The Hockey News published “NHL President Warns TV May Keep Fans Home,” an interview between Clarence Campbell and writer Syd Thomas. In it, Campbell cautioned that viewers would both miss the action of the live game, and cause a decline in revenue from lost ticket sales. During the 2012–13 season, more than 5.1 million fans watched on the CBC as Boston knocked out Toronto, a first-round audience record. Last November, Rogers Communications signed a $5.2-billion deal for the rights to broadcast NHL games in Canada.
—Harley Rustad

Television lost another round in its battle with sporting interests this week when President Clarence Campbell of the National Hockey League came out flatly with the charge that the new entertainment medium was a definite threat to the winter sport.

The NHL chief asserted that television would adversely affect attendance by keeping present and prospective fans at home, and would further harm the game by presenting the less attractive features while missing out on the speed and skill which make the sport such a thrilling spectacle for rink-goers.

“Fights, injuries, boarding and other rough tactics are the easiest to catch on television,” President Campbell told The Hockey News in an interview. “On the other hand, the fast end-to-end rushes, the skillful, attractive features of the game are most difficult to portray because of TV’s limited field of view. This is not a proper representation of the overall action and certainly can’t be doing the game any good.

“This is especially important, since all the surveys taken so far have shown hockey to be one of the most popular forms of TV entertainment. But, if the television fans are going to get the impression hockey is made up only of fights and injuries, the game will suffer.”

Regarding attendance, the league leader said the future course of action would depend entirely on how television affects the box office. This season games are being televised in all four United States cities in the NHL, with Boston and Detroit making their initial venture into TV during the current campaign. In Canada, television is still some years away, but Montreal and Toronto will have to meet the problem sooner or later.

“It has been said that television makes new fans,” the President continued. “But it’s unlikely to make enough new fans to offset those old ones who will be lost. The most loyal fans would probably continue to attend weekend games, but would be likely to stay home and watch mid-week fixtures on their TV sets.

“Mid-week attendance has shown a drop in both Chicago and New York, the two centers where television is most solidly established. Of course, it’s still too early to say whether video alone is responsible, but it remains as a possibility. Tobin [President Wm. J. Tobin of the Chicago Black Hawks] has declared he considers it definitely injurious to attendance, and TV will not be included in his plans for the 1949–50 season.”

The whole question of television as it affects hockey will be discussed thoroughly this Friday, March 11, when the League Governors get together for their Spring Playoff Meeting.

“Television sets are expensive and at present are within the reach only of the upper and middle income brackets. These are the people who support hockey, since the price range of tickets is above the level easily afforded by the average wage earner. If these people stay home, it has been estimated that each club will lose anywhere from 10 per cent up to one-third in attendance in the high-priced brackets. In terms of gate receipts this can mean as much as $1,000,000 a season to the six NHL clubs.

“It’s extremely doubtful if television can afford to pay us enough to make up for this lost attendance. We certainly shouldn’t give our show away for practically nothing.”

The effect television will have on other leagues besides the NHL is difficult to foresee, the President added.

“But if baseball is any criterion, these leagues are bound to suffer, since the game is played during the inclement winter months when people are apt to stay indoors during bad weather. All cities adjacent to NHL centers are bound to suffer. This is bad not only for pro hockey but also for the amateurs, especially in Canada. People will stay home where they can get their entertainment free, rather than support their home-town amateur clubs, which naturally can’t supply as good a brand of hockey as the NHL teams.”

The trend to get your hockey entertainment at home is becoming more pronounced in centers like New York. There a well-known hotel is preparing a special “television floor” where party rooms will be equipped with sets for the entertainment of guests.

“There is the additional danger that television may be something of a fad which will pall on people after a few years,” the President concluded. “If too many customers are weaned away from the rinks during that period, it may be the most difficult to replace them when the fad declines in popularity.”

This appeared in the June 2014 issue.

The Walrus
Emily Taylor
Emily Taylor has created art for Subway and Corporate Knights.