I’m here to admit, begrudgingly, that WEEI’s Kirk Minihane is right about one thing: Boston doesn’t really care about hockey talk. There aren’t many markets in the U.S.A. which truly desire hockey talk.
Yes, Boston Bruins fans are some of the city’s most passionate fans. But there aren’t as many of them as for the city’s other pro sports teams. Otherwise, they’d be moving the needle in terms of web traffic and radio listeners. They aren’t.
The city is a football town in the fall and winter and a baseball town in the spring, summer and fall. The New England Patriots own the city, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the main drivers of discussion. The Boston Red Sox are beloved (or loathed in the case of last season), and take the center of attention as soon as games begin. But listeners could probably listen to four hours of Brady and Belichick talk if radio shows could fill the airwaves with those characters. And they often do on Mondays after games in the NFL regular season. The Celtics may be a distant third behind the Sox and Pats, but the Bruins are a distant fourth behind them in terms of aggregate interest.
So when Minihane went off on hockey talk — and in turn his co-worker Dale Arnold, a WEEI afternoon show host — he was right. The way he went about it wasn’t correct (with belittlement and sarcasm of his coworker’s crtique). But his sentiment was true.
“Just leave me alone, Dale, OK? Here’s the deal. We made this deal. Leave our show alone. We’ll leave yours alone. Talk all the hockey all you want. Knock yourself out. By the way, it’s your own show now. Talk about it for 20 hours a week. Go for it. I’m not going to do it. I didn’t do it last year or the year before or the year before. We’ve been No. 1.
“The Bruins make the playoffs, great. They go on a great, long run. God bless them. Mazel Tov. Whatever you want. But leave us alone. … Take care of your own business.”
The always exhausting and seemingly exhausted Minihane is indeed the owner of the top radio show in Boston. Surely, no one in Boston is quite as attentive to ratings as he is. He will (and does) talk about President Donald Trump for hours on end to boost ratings. He knows what makes his phones ring. He knows what keeps listeners engaged. Love him or hate him, he’s good for WEEI’s business.
As a writer at Boston.com, I wrote about Boston’s big four sports teams from our news desk, mostly blogging about news and viral video clips. No one read my stories on the Bruins. As ravenous as core Bruins fans are for content, there can’t be many of them out there.
This isn’t to say WEEI or Boston.com should abandon Bruins coverage. But when you’re not serving your core audience, at what point do you taper or stop? As observed by The Big Lead’s Ryan Glasspiegel (and hockey fans everywhere), ESPN has employed the same strategy as WEEI. They haven’t quite abandoned the sport altogether. But they don’t cover it voraciously.
One of ESPN’s ombudsmen, Robert Lipsyte, seemed to defend that coverage choice back in 2014 in an interview with The Big Lead. Lipsyte referenced the many columns he wrote 25 years ago about the New York Rangers for the New York Times, and explained what he learned from heavily covering the sport.
“I came away with two thoughts – One, hockey was the most exciting sport in the world, and Two, all the hockey fans in New York were at Madison Square Garden for every home game. I still feel that way. So when I got tons of mail at ESPN complaining about hockey coverage, I kept thinking, Yes, you’re right, but it’s only you.”
The conundrum seems to be true in every market and every media: New York, Boston or Chicago and print, radio or broadcast.
Hockey fans aren’t tuning in for coverage.
Ask David Kaplan, who hosts “Kap + Co.” on ESPN Chicago radio and Cubs pre- and post-game for NBC Sports Chicago. During his appearance on “Glass Half Empty” podcast in July 2017, he admitted he was a season-ticket holder for the Blackhawks. But his listeners didn’t give him reasons to talk about the NHL. The Bulls were always better subject matter for his listeners.
“Hockey has never translated to talk radio. It just — for whatever reason — it doesn’t. There is a diehard group of fans that want to talk about it. If I go on tomorrow, and I say, ‘Your thoughts on [Bulls general manager] Gar Forman.’ If I say, ‘your thoughts on trading [former Bulls guard] Jimmy Butler.’ Full of phones. If I say let’s talk about Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks’ lack of defense, you get a couple calls, that’s it.”
So do I like the way Minihane went about proclaiming he wasn’t going to talk hockey? No. Why would you? But I also can’t argue with his decision. At The Big Lead, we do the same thing. You’d be hard-pressed to find hockey coverage on this site. And that’s, in part, because not enough people care to consume that content.