By Matt Ventresca
I think the powers that be at TSN are going to start wondering about me. It may seem to some readers that I can’t make up my mind whether to praise the Canadian sports broadcasting powerhouse or criticise them. In my last post about the World Junior Hockey Championship, I applauded the network for its stroke of marketing genius in turning the WJHC from an unheralded and overlooked event into a “holiday tradition,” while condemning them for the blatant overproduction of the tournament. And now we are mere days away from Trade Deadline Day, and I’m at it again. 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.
Despite our implicit understanding that deadline deals are almost never the blockbuster trades that will immediately make or break a team’s fortunes (Sportsnet’s list of Top Ten Deadline Deals will attest), it is quite difficult for anyone who closely follows professional hockeyto resist getting swept up in all the hype around the trade deadline. As our fearless editor Mark Norman pointed out to me, what’s really interesting here is how up front media companies tend to be about their unabashed and unashamed transformation of this non-event into media spectacle. Case in point: when the “breaking news” hit the airwaves regarding the sudden availability of superstar forward Rick Nash, the NHL on TSN’s James Duthie commented, “We will be covering this story until a deal is done or the deadline passes because, as you know, when it comes to the trade deadline, we will take a story and we will run with it.” This may have been merely praise for the depth of coverage TSN is able to provide on possible trades; but knowing Duthie and his penchant for sarcasm, this could also have been a subtle acknowledgement that months of relentless analysis and speculation on player transactions that may or may not happen is slightly absurd.
The media coverage of the NHL trade deadline is a prime example of what historian Daniel J. Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event.” In his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962), Boorstin identifies and deconstructs spectacles that do not exist outside of the mediated sphere of photography, advertising or broadcast television. Events such as press conferences and product launches serve no purpose but to be consumed through various forms of media, and have little meaning except for what is ascribed to it by producers, commentators and analysts (we can also look to league drafts and the unfathomable coverage of events like the NFL Combine for sports-related examples of this phenomenon). Through the hours of coverage on trade deadline day, we are led to believe that behind closed doors every NHL general manager and his staff of assistants, scouts and “capologists” are tirelessly working the phones to negotiate acquisitions and satisfy the supposedly rabid fan base that demands their team make a “big splash” before the deadline. Yet the important thing to remember is: we never actually see any of this. We are witness to a rotating panel of analysts who sit in front of another set of analysts and “insiders” who are constantly on their phones or typing frantically on their Blackberries looking to break the next big (or small) trade. We are also, however, not privy to these conversations either. We assume that the assembled crew of commentators and former players are speaking to team sources, general managers and agents to find out the latest updates on possible player moves, but we have no idea what is actually being said or the legitimacy of the knowledge they are obtaining.
The most exciting and riveting aspects of the trade deadline, the shrewd negotiations and split second decisions that can literally change the face of the franchise, never make it on air. Instead we are subject to nine hours of “reaction and analysis,” as well as player interviews from those who have been traded and those who are staying put. TSN has clearly developed a successful formula that apparently captivates a healthy viewing audience, yet what we are consuming is so far removed from the actual events that are the impetus for the coverage. To borrow from the postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard (1995), The Trade Deadline Does Not Exist. Yes, it is a real stipulation in the league’s current collective bargaining agreement, and yes, real players change teams and have to relocate to new cities; but our understandings of what constitutes the trade deadline are firmly entrenched in a state of hyperreality where we consume endless amounts of commentary about a series of events that only exist in our imaginations and are not even being simulated by the mass media (also see Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality (1990) for an insightful essay on the endless proliferation of “sports chatter”).
Of course, this is not to say that the trade deadline does not have tangible effects. The continuously increasing coverage surrounding the deadline has been a factor in introducing the jargon of market capitalism into the hockey fan’s lexicon. Teams are “buyers” or “sellers” seeking “value” for their “assets” or looking to solidify their playoff roster with “rental players.” This type of terminology (along with the rise of fantasy sports) further portrays players as commodities whose labour can be bought and sold at the whim of their employers. The rampant coverage of the trade deadline (as well as related pseudo-events such as the July 1st, “Free Agent Frenzy”) also makes every day fans assumed authorities on the ins and outs of sports labour law. The most prominent example of this is the discussion of “no movement clauses” in certain contracts and how players’ are seen to be governed by a bizarre code of ethics where they have either “earned” the right to invoke this clause or “owe it to their team” to allow the trade to go through. Finally, the most significant, but underrepresented, aspect of the trade deadline is how players most re-locate at a moment’s notice and leave what has been their home for several months or years, transplanting their families in the process (the logistics of which are always left to the player’s wife or partner). Players’ high salaries are commonly thought to mitigate these issues (i.e. “I’d do that for a million bucks!”), but narratives like those presented by James Mirtle and Paul Waldie in Saturday’s Globe and Mail need to be the subject of much more media attention.
My argument here is not meant to condemn those who follow the lead up to the trade deadline like it’s a second job (if it were a job, my internet browser history shows that I might be a candidate for employee of the month). Instead, it was meant as an attempt to provide a little insight into how this media event has been manufactured and some of its most noticeable effects. The NHL and its broadcasting partners are not guaranteed that trades of any magnitude will happen on Monday, but they are pretty much guaranteed a compliant audience who will be watching, reading and clicking away. And what can I say to that? I’ll probably be one of them.
Baudrillard, Jean (1995). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Boorstin, Daniel Joseph (1961). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Vintage.
Eco, Umberto (1990). Travels in Hyperreality. Mariner Books.