At noon EST today, the NHL’s free agency period opens. At a basic level, this means that players whose contracts have expired or been bought out, and who are eligible for unrestricted free agency (UFA), can begin fielding offers from NHL teams and are free to sign contracts as of 12:00 PM. But over the past number of years, this deadline has taken on increasing significance to teams, fans, players and media. TSN labels July 1 the “Free Agent Frenzy” and has a full studio panel of its hockey “insiders” breaking the news as signings go down. Sportsnet will offer a similarly hyped TV spectacle.
Back in February, Matt Ventresca wrote a great post that labelled the trade deadline “The Great Canadian Pseudo-Event.” Matt described the importance of media, in particular TSN, in making the trade deadline and other events into spectacles:
The trade deadline is a logistical technicality that passes virtually unnoticed in other sports, yet TSN (here is the marketing genius part) has transformed this non-event into one of the most anticipated days on the NHL calendar and has forced its competitors (most noticeably, Rogers Sportsnet) to follow their model of relentless, wall-to-wall coverage. In many ways, the trade deadline has eclipsed other hockey media spectacles like the NHL Draft and the All-Star Game (although TSN is also trying to change that with their “All-Star Fantasy Draft” gimmick) as must-see TV – or at least as a reason to spend 9 hours continually refreshing tsn.ca.
Free Agent Frenzy similarly smacks of a corporate-produced, over-hyped, pseudo-event. It feels as though TSN executives thought “Hey, let’s take a routine part of the NHL’s labour process and turn it into a massive TV spectacle. People will totally eat it up!” While I certainly feel that Canadian media networks like TSN, along with Sportsnet and the Score, were driving forces in the creation of the Frenzy, there are a variety of factors that have contributed to its massive surge in popularity. It is thus a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario when attempting to determine the influence of the media and the mass spectacle of a psuedo-event.
Firstly, the signing of UFAs have become an increasingly critical part of building successful teams. Unrestricted free agency was an important labour victory for players, as it unshackled them from the teams that owned their rights and allowed them the right to sell their labour to the most desirable employer. The age for reaching UFA status used to be 31 in most cases, but the last Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), signed in 2005, progressively lowered that age so that now a player can become a UFA at age 27 or after seven years in the NHL. This is the reason we now see so many long-term contracts signed by players in their low-20s (e.g. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Duncan Keith) – teams want to lock them up before they become a UFA.
Paradoxically, then, the lowered UFA age results in more players signing long term deals that prevent them from testing free agency. Ironically, this has diluted the media appeal of the Free Agent Frenzy as there are fewer star players eligible to sign new contracts. This year, for example, other than Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Martin Brodeur, there are few significant players available to sign. This does not, of course, stop the TSN crew from doing backflips to describe the importance of that sixth defenseman the Minnesota Wild signed as a depth player – “He’s a right handed shot!”, “This guy’s got great work ethic!”, etc.
As a result of UFAs, teams now have the opportunity to sign younger players who are still in their prime – and, of course, unlike in a trade, the team does not have to give up any other players or draft picks. Whereas teams used to be built through the draft and trades, UFAs now offer an opportunity for teams to improve significantly in a short period of time. This process, along with the salary cap, have contributed to parity in the league – we are highly unlikely to see dynasties like those of the Montreal Canadiens (1950s, 1960s, 1970s), Toronto Maple Leafs (1940s, 1960s), New York Islanders (1980s) or Edmonton Oilers (1980s). Because the gap between top and bottom teams has shrunk so significantly, July 1 has taken on increased importance – it is a day on which teams can possibly add a key player to push them slightly ahead of their competitors.
The parity of the NHL helps explain why there is a public appetite for TV spectacles like the Free Agent Frenzy. Fans of most teams feel like their teams have a shot of “taking the next step” in the coming season – whether that means making the playoffs, winning their division, or winning the Stanley Cup – and that one or two key UFA signings could push them over the top. The media networks play into this, of course – the first few hours of the Frenzy involve in-depth discussions of what each Canadian team’s “needs” are, and how various UFAs would help improve the team. It’s barely one step above two buddies at the pub fantasizing over which players they would like to see on their team. But it sure is compelling fantasy.
Finally, it is worth noting the significance of today’s 24/7 media cycle and the huge significance of new media to hockey fandom. There is an overabundance of media content – something Hockey in Society contributor Sunil Agnihotri recently wrote about – and concomitant pressure on mainstream media to produce content and keep eyeballs on screens. As much as I am focusing on TSN, and to a lesser extent Sportsnet and the Score, there are thousands of media outlets across a wide variety of media platforms (newspapers, TV, websites, blogs, Twitter, etc.) who have been contributing to the hype over the past few weeks. In this climate, there is ample room for media to speculate about improbable scenarios, write lengthy pieces about unsourced rumours, and turn the slightest comment by players or management into full-blown narratives. And there are plenty of fans – myself very much included in this group – who are there to eat it up. Add to this thousands of hockey fan blogs and new media users, and you have a massive hype machine building up to the July 1 Frenzy.
One other fascinating point about Free Agent Frenzy – is there any other situation in which hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people will tune in to watch a dozen reporters discuss multi-millionaires becoming even richer? It would be a bit like watching a full-day show about how much money day traders made on the stock market. The Justin Schultz signing – which took place yesterday and which has been already been significantly dissected by hockey experts – was particularly absurd. A college student (Schultz just left University of Wisconsin to turn pro) spent a day soliciting offers from a long line of suitors who wanted to sign him and were attempting to sway his decision with increasingly compelling offers (they were limited, because of restrictions on rookie salaries, in the amount of money they could offer). The Edmonton Oilers ultimately signed Schultz after bringing in the heavy artillery – NHL legends Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey were employed by the Oilers to help recruit Schultz. The hockey media machine was in overdrive in the days leading up to Schultz’s decision.
The absurdity of the Free Agent Frenzy shows through at various times in the broadcast. Last year, the Los Angeles Kings management were embarrassingly locked out of the building to which they had traveled to pitch UFA Mike Richards. As Nick Cotsonika explains:
Thirty-seven minutes after NHL free agency opened at noon on July 1, representatives of the Los Angeles Kings arrived at an office building near Toronto. They had come to Newport Sports to make their pitch to the top player on the market – really, the only marquee player on the market – Brad Richards.
They couldn’t get in the door. Literally. They pulled on it, but it was locked. They pushed the buzzer, but there was no response. All of it was captured on camera and aired on TSN’s five-hour “Free Agent Frenzy.”
This year, Cotsonika tweeted that the Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, accompanied by recently retired Chris Chelios, is traveling to Ryan Suter’s farm in Wisconsin to attempt to sign him to a contract. Is this not a bizarre image? A billionaire stalking a hockey player through rural Wisconsin and knocking on his door in an attempt to sign him to his hockey team? One can only hope that he stands outside Suter’s window with a boombox…
TSN is remarkably self-reflexive about the ridiculousness of the spectacle they have helped create. It is less than an hour into this year Frenzy, and there have been no major signings. Gino Reda, who is assigned to the parking lot outside the Mississauga offices of Zach Parise’s agency to await word of any signings, told TSN host James Duthie that he hopes the signing happens in time for Reda to watch the Euro Cup final later this afternoon. Discussing the fans who gathered in that same parking lot last year, when Brad Richards was weighing where to sign, Duthie commented:
“That’s Canada for you. On July 1, Canada Day, a bunch of people show up to a parking lot in Mississauga to see where Brad Richards signs.”
While most Canadians may not be camped in a suburban parking lot, clearly many of them are sitting at home watching the Frenzy unfold. For all its absurdity and minimal significance, the Free Agent Frenzy has become a significant event on the hockey media calendar.