How the EIHL could learn so many lessons from British Wrestling

Picture: PROGRESS Wrestling, along with its contemporaries, are leading the way in how to grow a minority product and investing the future. Photo by Rob Brazier (http://www.robbrazierphoto.com/)

Previously, I stated on Twitter that we wouldn’t be covering British hockey again after the non-response from the EIHL over the homophobic comments from David Simms. But trust me, this isn’t going to put them in a positive light.

On the contrary, I’m about to show you why they are consistently stopping the growth of their own sport, and are being left behind by, of all things, professional wrestling.

Full disclosure

I’ve been a fan of pro wrestling longer than I’ve been a fan of hockey. I’ve watched the WWE since I was 11, and jumped on the British wrestling bandwagon just before it exploded in 2013. I’ve watched promotions go from local community centres, to sold out, bleacher-laden gym halls, to sold-out nightclubs, to sold-out big gig venues, to sold-out academies, to arenas. This growth was not accidental.

The background

This article came about from the news today that the EIHL playoff final weekend would seemingly not be broadcast, with claims that hockey is a “bums on seats” industry from someone in the inner circle.

Well, I’m sure the NHL are bitterly disappointed with their multiple TV deals, the revenue they bring, and the decline in attendance because of them. I mean just look at how many people don’t go to see Montreal any mo…oh wait.

Anyway, that’s not the point. Today, I was approached with this question by a friend:

Regarding EIHL coverage. Liam, what’s to stop them going down the Progress/ICW subscription route?

I will grant them that it’s a lot easier to find venues for wrestling matches, but I look at the growth of Britwres and the stagnation of hockey and I’m just… Gobsmacked.

To explain that route, both PROGRESS and Insane Championship Wrestling, along with many others, offer subscription-based models to bring their shows to a wide audience. For a certain fee a month, you can stream shows on-demand, at any time, to your heart’s content.

ICW also occasionally show their biggest shows live – including their show at the Hydro in Glasgow, which didn’t sell out but still had over 6000 people in attendance.

Other services, such as FloSlam and the Fite TV app, allow you paid access to multiple promotions and events.

So, could the EIHL go down this route? Certainly, they could. Clubs could provide a subscription service to their own webcasts, raking in regular income and getting more eyes on the product.

This wouldn’t make much sense, though. Are you going to subscribe to see one team’s webcasts if you’re not a fan of that team? Unlikely.

The better route, in my eyes, would be for the league to take control of all broadcasts. Ideally, they would centralise the webcasts, give all the teams equipment to do it, and run a subscription model for the entire league – just like British basketball does.

As for bums in seats, the BBL is running the O2 Arena for their playoff finals – and they’ve sold over 10,000 tickets. Broadcasting sports does not take away people in arenas.

Will they ever do this? No, probably not. It will involve loss of money. Buying equipment for the teams who don’t currently have it, compensating the others when they complain that they had to pay for their own, the teams losing the direct revenue of their own webcasts (even though there would probably be more to share, from interested outsiders, but never mind).

It’s also a good time to remind you that the EIHL turned down an offer from a paid subscription broadcaster in favour of showing highlights on a freeview channel, hidden at the bottom of the EPG, that not everyone can receive, with a 0.01% market share.

It isn’t just in the broadcasting game where the EIHL could pick up some lessons, though.

Home-grown

British wrestling is exploding right now. Imports come over here now because they want to work with our best, rather than coming in for a payday.

The top companies are looking to work over here – New Japan Pro Wrestling has a working relationship with Revolution Pro Wrestling with a talent exchange, Impact Wrestling have been instrumental in the return to television of the lauded World of Sport brand, and WWE see so much potential in the UK market that they are creating their own television series, filmed here and starring British talent.

Why’s that the case? Why are these companies, who are mostly successful in their own right (Impact’s problems aside), coming over here and investing in our product?

There are two major reasons. One, a rabid fanbase who will eat up the product. Two? We have some incredible talent.

This hasn’t happened by accident. It’s not like our guys woke up one day and were suddenly some of the best in the world. It has taken dedication to the art, years of training, and proper development opportunities.

As little as 10 years ago, there were only one or two training schools in the entire UK. What are now the biggest names in UK wrestling would travel hundreds of miles and spend weeks, months, years, learning their craft.

Eventually, when newer promotions arrived and started to realise they could be successful, they opened their own schools, in order to continue to develop new talent and bring their own homegrown guys in.

The bigger companies over here know the importance of in-house development. PROGRESS have a school, as do ICW, Fight Club: Pro, and New Generation Wrestling, in addition to smaller promotions starting their own and creating great talent, such as the Source wrestling academy and the Kamikaze Pro school.

North Americans have already realised the potential of having a school here, with former WWE and ECW talent Al Snow also running a school in South-west London.

The results of the growth in the availability of training? Brits are amongst the most in-demand wrestlers in the world. There are loads of British guys in Orlando this week for Wrestlemania.

Will Ospreay, Mark Haskins and Zack Sabre Jr, work all over the world for many different promotions. Our guys are amongst the best in the world right now. Again, that didn’t happen by accident.

What’s my point? Development.

The EIHL is notoriously very bad at developing players. The UK in general is very bad at developing players. Aside from very rare exceptions (Tony Hand, Paul Swindlehurst, Robert Farmer), North America does not pay attention to UK hockey, because the potential to find elite talent just isn’t there. Well, except when bad things happen, but that’s a different story.

That is on everybody from the top to the bottom of UK hockey. I have no doubt that, with the same opportunities, time on ice and proper development, that the UK could produce some of the best players in the world.

But – and it’s a big but – the opportunities and chances aren’t there.

People complain about the quality of the Brits and why the imports bring the people in, why they’re more entertained by the better imports, but the development isn’t there, and the proper training isn’t there, and then we’re shocked when Brits get to a certain level and don’t improve above that.

Robert Dowd had all the potential in the world, but he eventually settled back in Sheffield and that was that. There is only so good you can be playing in the UK, at the current time.

With more investment from the top down, Brits could get more ice time at an early age, more opportunities to play, and more quality coaching.

Surely, if you’re in charge of an Elite League club, it is in your best interests to commit to producing players, to make them become the best they can be. Because if it isn’t, you can have no complaints when the next generation comes up and it can’t hold a candle to a two-weeks-from-retirement, slowed down ex-AHL player.

The clubs with the most resources should be developing in the future. Mark Haskins, Tyler Bate and Jimmy Havoc aren’t going to be around forever, and British wrestling companies know that. They’re planning for the future.

British hockey isn’t.

But how does this relate to broadcasting the playoffs?

Here’s the thing. North Americans don’t watch UK hockey, because they’ve no reason to. They watch other leagues, like the KHL and the SHL. Why’s that? Prospects.

I know folks in Canada who watch the SHL on a regular basis, because they want to see how their team’s draft picks are getting on in their junior years. They watch the KHL for the same. If people have a reason to watch things, they will do – especially hockey fans, who are the rarest of breeds and will absorb all the hockey they can – if there’s a point to it. I used to write on another site with Leigh Salters’ cousin – that was the only reason they watch, and they don’t watch now.

Now, imagine if the UK was developing players who could become NHL draft picks, and eventually NHL players.

Imagine if we had kids who were that red hot that scouts were coming over to check them out.

Imagine if a kid was drafted by a NHL team, and spent his draft+ year in the Elite League. How many eyes would that bring to the product?

Now, imagine their frustration when they can’t find anywhere to watch the kid in action.

Imagine that you could get a few thousand people tuning in to watch Braehead vs Dundee because a generational UK talent was tearing up the league, and then couldn’t, because Braehead don’t do webcasts.

The idea that a team doesn’t do webcasts because of a possible detriment to footfall in 2017 is ridiculous. What are the odds that I’m going to end up at the Saddledome to watch the Flames? It’s unlikely. But, I have the chance to watch them via NHL.TV or on Premier Sports. Should I not be able to watch them play, just because I can’t get to Calgary?

The league should take charge of this. They should centralise broadcasts, just like there is precedent in British basketball, and make every game available to watch for anyone, anywhere.

And if they don’t want to centralise it, they should put up a subscription model so people can watch their team’s games, like the BritWres model.

Plus, if the availability to watch is there, and you have something worth tuning in for, people will watch. Fans around the world watch PROGRESS and ICW. It isn’t just a little bubble, BritWres is not our little secret any more. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, because we have some of the best talent and put on some of the best shows you can find anywhere on the planet. Make it accessible, and people will access it.

But they won’t, will they?

Another quote from the same friend who asked me the question:

It’s a different world and naively, before I found wrestling, I thought it couldn’t be done in a smaller sport from the UK. I really did think the EIHL had a unique set of problems. They don’t.

Oh, and one final lesson the EIHL could learn from BritWres:

progresswrestling1009.png

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