(Note: This is the second part of an interview with ECAC ice hockey commissioner Jeff Fanter. The first installment was entitled “Man On A Mission.”)
Five months into Jeff Fanter’s tenure as ECAC ice hockey commissioner, he has started to put into motion some of the ideas he presented to the selection committee during his interview.
“In year one, my foundation is the media,” said Fanter. “If the media isn’t behind you, you’re not going to go real far.
“They are important for our ultimate game plan, [so] I want to make sure the media knows what we’re trying to do. Our whole philosophy is that the media has everything that they need at their hands to portray the ECAC the way it should be portrayed.”
The issue of using the media to promote the league is an overriding theme of Fanter’s. He believes that the single biggest problem the league suffers is its image.
“This is not a knock on my predecessor (Joe Bertagna), but I thought the ECAC wasn’t getting a fair shake from the media in the exposure that it was getting,” says Fanter, who says he tried to make inroads during his two-year tenure as an assistant SID at Colgate, from 1993-95. “I tried to make some suggestions to Joe here and there, but I couldn’t call up Joe and say, `You need to expand the weekly release,’ or `You need to be pushing this guy at Clarkson.'”
To Fanter, the media is all-important, and therefore, information that the media receives can make a huge difference. For instance, last year there was the case of Clarkson All-America Todd White.
“I didn’t understand why he didn’t win the Hobey Baker,” says Fanter. “I know where Michigan ranked, and I know what Brendan [Morrison, the eventual winner] is all about, but if someone took a look at the numbers seriously…I could not come up with an answer why [White] didn’t win it.”
The only answer, says Fanter, is that people weren’t informed enough. Fanter is trying to counteract that perceived flaw, to get the message out. In turn, he is hoping that the media will write about the ECAC more fully — to spread the message.
He believes that his efforts are paying off.
“The Boston Herald and the Boston Globe are covering the ECAC like never before,” he pointed out. “I just think we’re getting the information in their hands, and there are people out there that want to read about it. We just need to preach our story.”
Besides the expanded coverage in newspapers, the ECAC now has its own website, including weekly releases and statistics for all seven ECAC-sponsored ice hockey leagues.
The impetus for the site came from Tim Danehy, who worked for Bertagna as league statistician last year. It took a while, but during meetings with ECAC chief Clayton Chapman, Danehy convinced the league to let him create an maintain an extensive website, putting to use an extensive statistical database.
For Fanter, this is just the beginning.
“Once we’ve got the media behind us, and they know what we’re trying to do, and how we’re trying to promote the game and our league at the same time, we move on to other stuff in the future,” he said. “The biggest one is obviously expanding the television package.”
Part of Fanter’s proposal was to expand the reach of the ECAC through television, by using its current package while inking another deal with the New England Sports Network.
The ECAC is currently in the third year of a three-year agreement with the Empire Sports Network, which has televised “The Road to Lake Placid” the last two seasons. The package has included a number of regular-season games, plus the semifinals and the championship of the ECAC tournament. But Empire reaches only select markets in New York State, and goes to less than one million viewers in the Northeast on all cable systems.
Otherwise, the ECAC was absent from New England TV, except for select games by regional broadcast stations such as WNDS in New Hampshire and WABU in Boston. Fanter solved this problem by landing NESN after the network dropped Hockey East following last season.
“We needed a presence in New England. Half of our teams play in New England,” he said. “I had some regional people who called me, and I talked to those people, but I wanted something bigger….Something that was on a satellite dish so that people could find it.”
“I called the folks at NESN, and they were interested, so they came down to talk to us. We didn’t know what the feedback was going to be. They dropped Hockey East, and we didn’t know if they wanted college hockey at all.” But after that initial call, things went very fast, and a deal was signed.
“It happened in two meetings,” said Fanter. “It wasn’t hard for them to see what we had to offer. We had a solid conference, we were organized, we knew how to use television to our advantage, and how the ECAC could work to their advantage.
“NESN wanted a piece of the action.”
NESN signed on to televise four league games, plus the ECAC championships from Lake Placid. This brings the total of league games televised by NESN and Empire to 11.
The key for NESN in getting the deal done, and the major difference from the Hockey East package it discontinued, is that the ECAC is picking up some of the production costs for the package — something that Hockey East did not do. That’s because Fanter considers NESN a big plus towards the marketing of the ECAC.
“We need to work within the New England region, and we’ve made advances with this television package,” he said. “Games have been on in the New York area, but in New England, games have been bounced around on WNDS and some of these smaller, regional stations. We’ve made a big move with NESN.”
Fanter will be a big part of the television package, utilizing his previous television experience to help produce the games. Fanter was part of Fox Sports’ number-one ice hockey team (Mike Emrick and John Davidson) in the first year that Fox had NHL hockey, working as statistical and graphics support.
“In our prep package for television, people aren’t going to be running around looking for information, because I know what television wants,” says Fanter. “The group at NESN is saying, `We’re getting so much information from you, we have so much to work with, this is going to be a great product and we can’t wait to grow in the future with you.’ Anytime you can get a TV station that big behind you…people are going to notice.”
With NESN locked up, Fanter is also trying to assist Empire. He says he is working with the network to get it onto cable systems in areas such as Albany, Ithaca, and the North Country. All of these are hotbeds of ECAC hockey, and currently do not carry either Empire or NESN.
With the present television package in place, Fanter looks towards the future, and the vision that he has for the ECAC and television.
“I want to see an ECAC Game of the Week,” he said. “I want to make it just like Monday Night Football. How many people turn on Monday Night Football and could care less about the teams playing it? I want to make it so that with our fan base and alumni, everyone wants to turn on the ECAC Game of the Week.
“The two stations that we work with have said that they are going to do that. They are going to keep people informed about the league. They’re not just going to put two teams out on the ice and then turn the lights out afterwards.
“If you’re just content with getting your games on television, that doesn’t do a thing.”
Fanter also has bigger aspirations for college hockey and television.
“We ultimately want to get a national TV contract,” he said. “All four [commissioners] have to work together towards it.”
Fanter has commissioned a weekly Division I ECAC hockey show — around nine minutes, and covering the previous and upcoming week’s games — distributed to all radio stations that cover those ECAC teams. To him, it’s just another way of informing the listening audience.
“I think it’s a good way to talk about what’s going on in the ECAC,” he said. “When people listen to the game, they think they’re only listening to the game. I want to them to listen to the game and know about ECAC ice hockey.”
The ECAC doesn’t exist as a traditional conference like the Big Ten, the Pac-10, the Big East or the ACC. Except, that is, in one sport — ice hockey. “I think what I learned [at Colgate],” says Fanter, “was that the ECAC was not getting the exposure that it truly deserved because of its uniqueness as a conference; that these student-athletes compete for a national championship every time they step out on the ice, and the other five days of the week in the classroom they compete at the highest level academically.
“When you sit down and take a look at where those 12 institutions are ranked academically, there are no other conferences out there like that.
“I was at an institution [Indiana] where the athletes that play their sports are the best in the country. They’re good student-athletes, but they are looked at as athletes, and people don’t get the whole story angle as to what they are as student-athletes.
Fanter also wants to impress upon people what happens after the student graduates.
“We also need to describe what a lot of these student-athletes go on to,” he said. “We have players that are not only going out and playing in the NHL, but are going out there and running businesses and multi-million dollar corporations.”
But Fanter also knows that the perception of the league depends on the performance of the student-athlete as an athlete.
“The biggest thing is what happens on the ice,” he said. “If the ECAC never produces a winning team, people aren’t going to want to hear a lot about doing great in the classroom.
“I think we do, and I think we get overlooked sometimes.”
There are other areas where Fanter believes the ECAC is perceived poorly — like the lack of ECAC teams in national polls.
“The ECAC is structured differently,” he said. “Our season starts later, so these polls come out [at the beginning of the season] and our teams don’t play for two or three weeks. All of these teams get a jump on our league, and by the time we get caught up, we’re all playing each other and we’re knocking each other off, and beating up on each other in the league.”
This perception leaves a mark on the average hockey fan, according to Fanter.
“It’s one area that when the average reader picks up a poll, they only see one or two ECAC teams, and that puts a spin on for the rest of the season that this is a weaker league,” he said. “We just need to work through this, and let the people know that we started later and we’re starting to come around.
“You never want to sound like your complaining or that you’re whining, or making excuses, because that’s not what we’re doing. I think we’re just trying to paint the real picture because it’s never been painted.”