On Glow Pucks, Tradition & How One Size Does Not Fit All Sports Coverage




The NFL is back.

No really. This news may come as a shock given ESPN's 90 talking heads may make it seem like the league runs games 12 months a year, but that's not the case. Sorry to break it to you. There has been a six month off-season since Super Bowl XLVII saw the Baltimore Ravens defeat the San Francisco 49ers. In the ten days since Dallas and Miami opened the 2013 preseason with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, each of the 32 teams have played at least once. Locally, Christian Ponder was on the field for two plays and threw one interception.

And yet those two plays likely got more attention in the United States than niche sports like the NHL and English Premier League do over their stretch runs.

(No really. Last Sunday's Hall of Fame Game drew a 6.7 rating on NBC, which is higher than the 5.6 that Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final drew on the same network this year.)

Of course, the NFL exists on a mantle all by itself. Football is king in the United States and no other professional sports league comes close to the attention the NFL garners. Football's dominance is so big that more people watched the Pro Bowl - an event that is taken less seriously than some comedies - than Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals this year.

In an era where local radio covers training camp practice number three with the seriousness of a Senate subcommittee hearing, sports fans have had to go out of their way over the last month to miss all the hoopla.

But that's the NFL. It has the hearts of hardcore and casual fans alike between gambling lines, fantasy and any given Sunday. Everyone else tries to find a balance like in that Atmosphere song.

"If you try to end a game in a tie in the United States, that might be on the list of Revelations for the cause of the Apocalypse." -Coach Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis)

Hockey has been there. And failed miserably.

In 1994, the NHL signed a new television deal with Fox which saw hockey showcased in a time when the league recently ended a 17 year absence on US over-the-air TV. It was the start of a new era; one that saw a niche regional sport try to become more national. This had been preceded by growth and expansion away from northern markets with teams popping up in California (twice), Florida (twice) and Texas.

The NHL on Fox helped shine a light on a niche US sport in ways the league could only dream. However, it also did not stay true to itself and that meant the monstrosity that is glow puck.

The "glow puck" (or officially FoxTrax) was exactly as it sounds. Back in the days of standard definition and rabbit ears, the idea was to use technology to make the puck glow so those new to the game could follow along. One of hockey's biggest pitfalls on television is that the action can be difficult to follow. Skating bodies are fast while the puck is small. The glow puck even had a flaming tail when someone shot the puck.

It also wasn't accepted well by hockey fans. New fans enjoyed the glow puck but by 1998, it was no more.

Hockey is ingrained in Canada and the Northern United States so much so where new and tradition rarely intersect. NHL teams celebrating their 20th anniversary exist that are still said to be non-traditional.

Regardless of being solely on the side of tradition or innovation, there isn't anything wrong with being from a new area. In fact, many of the non-traditional teams have crafted new traditions of their own. In some markets that has meant catfish on the ice or in others just ice girls. These (as well as a growing player pool) have all added to the NHL in a way the glow puck did not.

The glow puck tried to be something it wasn't as if it was a middle schooler trying to fit in with the cool kids.

In fairness to the glow puck, this type of visual gimmick wasn't exclusive to the NHL during the 90s.  Hell, MLS' early history during that time is built upon selling gimmick after gimmick to soccer fans. Some, like Cletus the dancing Fox robot, have stuck while others such as the MLS shootout are a distant memory that only gets brought up preceded by the words "remember that stupid time that..." The difference between them, however, is that one didn't mess with niche success.

Simply put, hockey is not the NFL in the United States. Neither is soccer. You can't emulate the king without blowback.

"They have a different kind of football over here."

Almost twenty years later, NBC Sports Network has acquired the rights to the English Premier League and plans on showing every game (with some on NBC). The network's approach to introducing the league, which previously was broadcast on Fox Soccer and ESPN2, has been the opposite of Fox's all those years ago. Instead of looking at ways to adapt the sport towards an American audience, NBCSN has gone the other way.

The lead-up to Saturday's EPL opener has been a crash course of soccer 101. Advertising is focusing upon the things that make the league great like rivalries and the drama that comes with the intricacies of Champions League spots and relegation (neither which mean much to a fan of American sports). There was even a preview show for new fans to pick a side.

And of course, the video at the top of this article. In it longtime SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis plays an American football coach hired by London team Tottenham Hotspur (aka Spurs). He goes around humorously shouting every bad soccer cliche known to man while being corrected and/or made a fool. It is not bashful in trying to show off the tradition of the English Premier League.

That's important, even if it can be hard to replicate the passion fans have for the game. Soccer fans share similarities with hockey fans. Both are very tribal. Embracing that aspect over silly Americanizing rules (in fairness to MLS the league has improved dramatically since it has gotten rid of all those) or glow pucks is a much better way to sell a niche sport and coverage to Americans.

Unlike the glow puck, which was made as a way for new fans to get into the game at the expense of old fans, NBC Sports Network has done the EPL equivalent of taking the time to break down the intricacies of where the puck will likely be based on the action.

While trying to explain a lifetime of hockey (or soccer) knowledge can be harder in the beginning, it is better off in the long run.

Not everyone can be the NFL (did you hear it's back?) or CBC's Hockey Night in Canada pregame gold standard, but that doesn't mean they should throw away everything. It doesn't work. Just look at how well jerseys from the mid-late 90s have aged. Actually don't look - they're terribly ugly.

Still, things change. It's not like the most-watched sport in America - the NFL - hasn't slowly developed from outlawing passing to almost relying on it at times. But the key is slowly. There are annual changes yet the league still stays true to itself.

There is something to be said about finding the balance between keeping true and growing by embracing niche, which more and more companies have done since 1994. Things have come a long ways in the NHL in that time. Just twenty years ago the NHL being shown nationally was an accomplishment by itself. Now network and cable TV have changed so much that it can be hard to fathom growing up without ever seeing the Stanley Cup Final in an age where every game can be seen with the right cable package.

The same is true with other sports, including the English Premier League in the United State. Although that doesn't mean they will get the same over-analyzed talking heads that the NFL does (did you hear it's back?) throughout the year, the coverage it does get looks to have learned from the glow puck mistake the NHL made almost twenty years ago. People still know that they're back and staying true to form.

No one becomes the leader by copying the King. Or more importantly by completely rewriting their past.

(That said, if NBC wants to invest in some similar hockey videos for the start of the season or Stanley Cup Playoffs, I wouldn't complain.)

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Follow First Round Bust on Twitter @FRBHockey. You can also follow Nate @gopherstate.

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