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The Importance of Attention in Reporting on Lockouts

This media scrum around Donald Fehr is good, but even more media attention could help the NHL lockout end sooner. Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

The NFL referee lockout came to a fairly swift end this week after three weeks’ worth of games officiated by refs with stints at high school games, the Lingerie Football League and even Bank of America on their resumes while the normal refs battled it out with the ownership side of the league over important sticking points.

All it took was the infamous blown call heard ’round the world on Monday Night Football and two days of nonstop national outrage and media coverage. My local news station covered it every day on the 6:00 news and even had a roundtable debate once about it. NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams referred to the lockout as “football’s moment of crisis.”

The bumbling replacements were mercilessly lampooned on late-night talk shows. President Barack Obama even weighed in on the issue on his official Twitter by pointing out that, Democrat, Republican or otherwise, NFL fans wanted the lockout to end soon. When it did, press secretary Jay Carney referred to it as a “great day for America.”

Meanwhile, the NHL is having a much wider-spread crisis that affects even more people than the NFL lockout and, though it is getting media attention, it is not getting nearly as much. The lockout was mentioned briefly on NBC Nightly News when it began, but that was over the weekend, when many fewer eyeballs are on evening news programs.

ESPN, never known as a standard-bearer in terms of hockey coverage, has been much quieter on the issue compared to the NFL lockout. President Obama has yet to call out the other locked-out league, whether on Twitter, through his press secretary or otherwise.

I recognize that to compare the NFL and NHL is like comparing a very large apple to a very small orange. The two leagues are not the same in terms of revenue or share of viewers, but that doesn’t necessarily matter here.

What matters here is that the NHL’s lockout is its third since 1994 and that last time they locked out, they wiped out an entire season, the first North American professional sports season to be erased altogether due to a lockout and not a voluntary strike.

What matters here is that NHL referees are already out of work and already not receiving paychecks since there are no games for them to referee, plus they have been discouraged from looking for temporary work elsewhere in the meantime.

What matters here is that the people who work at arenas, and who work for the teams themselves, are already feeling the pinch. Though some teams promised to not lay off any employees during this work stoppage, other teams have already let some workers go and the lockout is only about two weeks old. Arena workers will find reduced pay, especially if they are paid hourly, because if there are fewer games to work, there’s less to do.

What matters here is that the players people thrill in watching are having to make tough decisions about possibly resettling overseas, leaving behind their families and friends and having to think about things like finding housing and dealing with language barriers so they can continue to do what they love. Doing what they love but not getting paid nearly as much for it–in the relatively short amount of time over the course of their lives wherein their bodies will allow them to do so.

Speaking of bodies, the league canceled the health insurance for them and their families, adding another layer of difficulty to things even though their union is stepping in to help, just like it did in the last two lockouts when the league did the exact same thing.

What matters here is the two sides’ relative inability to meet–although they have planned three days of upcoming negotiations and most likely took a break for Yom Kippur–and the gradual, continued loss of revenue as the NHL peels games off the calendar like a bad sunburn. (By the way, if you had tickets for any preseason game in September or October, go look into refunds.)

It’s interesting that this is happening at the same time hockey is actually getting more national attention, especially on NBC shows. When Lindsay Lohan hosted Saturday Night Live, she threw in a reference to Sidney Crosby in one sketch. Will Arnett’s character on Up All Night adores hockey, has been seen playing it in many episodes and once reluctantly parted ways with a cardboard cutout of Brendan Shanahan. Matthew Perry’s character on Go On wore a Los Angeles Kings hat and a Boston Bruins shirt in two different scenes and a Jonathan Quick sweater hangs framed in the office of the sports talk radio station where he works. Recently, Jeremy Roenick guest-starred on the show and held a pickup hockey tournament that Perry’s character played in as part of his therapeutic journey.

Of course, the fact that NBC is owned by Comcast, which has Comcast-Spectacor as a subsidiary, and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider chairs Comcast-Spectacor may help in that respect.

Never mind the fact that NBC recently shelled out fairly big bucks to secure airing rights for the entirety of the NHL playoff season and enjoyed big ratings from that, especially the busy and contentious quarterfinal round, which they didn’t have all the rights to before. Then there’s NBC Sports Network, the rebranded Versus that has positioned itself as a destination for hockey games. That took time and money and of course now they’re having to look at other options, like covering more college games, in the meantime.

Again, the NHL lockout is getting media coverage in both America and Canada. But, it has not been getting even remotely as much even though it affects far more people than the NFL referee lockout. Though the normal refs were locked out, games continued. Arena workers got their pay. Team employees kept their jobs. Players played stateside.

Yet it was a “great day for America” when that “moment of crisis” ended. If more media attention were focused on this lockout, and its proceedings and effects were even more widely scrutinized, perhaps the combined pressure would help it end sooner than expected.

Then, Jay Carney, Carl Vallee and Julie Vaux (the latter two are Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s press secretaries) could take to their podiums and proclaim it a great day for America and Canada.