Expanding the NHL Market: An Interview with Fred Teng

Tonight’s Rangers-Islanders tilt will be a bit unusual. A New York City radio station (WZRC; 1480 AM) is actually going to broadcast the game in Chinese. I was pretty shocked when I first heard about the plan, wondering how this whole idea came about. Fred Teng, Vice President of Multicultural Radio Broadcasting, Inc., the network behind the station broadcasting the four Ranger-Islander games from the Garden, was kind enough to fill me in.

SO: So how did this come about?

FT: When Yao Ming signed with the Houston Rockets, we started a relationship with the New York Knicks. We knew the Rockets would be coming to New York and began broadcasting 30 games a year. In addition, [Madison Square Garden] asked about us broadcasting other games. They mentioned hockey. But hockey season had already started. We do a lot of different sports and we wanted to experiment with hockey. All four games will be Rangers-Islanders.

SO: Why Rangers-Islanders?

FT: We figure it’s the best way to attract attention — two local teams. I’m getting hooked on hockey, too. Some of the rules you don’t see in any other sport. When someone has a penalty, you put them into a box. That’s something very different. That is the most powerful thing about hockey — you can kick players out. That’s a real penalty. That’s one of the things that make it unique. Also, the goalie can become a player. I see the kind of excitement that teams can do these kinds of things. It’s a very fast game and a very difficult game. You can’t score 100 points in a game.

Also, the Islanders are owned by Charles Wang, a Chinese-American. I got to know hockey because he invited me to see some games. We picked Rangers home games so there’s no conflict with Knick games.

SO: The Islanders have Richard Park, who’s Korean.

FT: Richard Park is a different kind of factor. Probably down the road they’ll be efforts in terms of outreach into the Korean communities and hopefully he’ll be a part of that.

SO: And who will be calling the games?

FT: We have a team of 4-5 people. They’re practicing now. We will use a minimum of two announcers and a stats person. Sometimes more. You don’t want dead air on radio. Sometimes we’ll have a studio person. It’s a whole team effort. Like when we were doing the soccer games, the announcing team were all wearing soccer uniforms. The announcers have a sports background but they’re cramming for hockey. They’re studying up on rules. We broadcast sports news and commentary. I’m not worried about their ability — it’s just something new.

SO: Any plans to get the TV rights to NHL games?

FT: TV rights are trickier to clear. We do highlights but don’t have plans to broadcast a whole game.

SO: You have stations in Los Angeles. Any plans to do something comparable with the Kings?

FT: We haven’t worked very hard on LA but we should. We haven’t really started yet, but I think there are a lot of opportunities.

SO: Obviously you haven’t broadcast any games yet, but do you have a sense of how the Asian-American community will respond to this?

FT: I don’t know how much Asian-Americans know about hockey. Charles Wang invited two youth teams from China, a northeastern area, to the United States and helped them with uniforms. The two teams played an exhibition game at an Islanders game. I think there will a growing interest. I know people in DC are excited about the game. Once a hockey fan becomes a fan, they stay a fan.

Even though these four broadcasts came out of MRBI’s conversations with Madison Square Garden, I suspect Charles Wang might have had some kind of larger role in all of this coming together. The Islanders have actually managed to improve their attendance this season, which is no small feat. Wang is definitely aware of the importance of selling the game. Since the league isn’t necessarily making in-roads in their current market, why not reach out to new communities? The Rangers and Lightning are going to play two games in Prague next season, based mostly on the idea that the NHL has a lot of Czech players who Czech fans want to see. Broadcasting games to the various Asian-American communities could present a toe-hold into the international Asian markets. It’s a very interesting move that tellingly did not come down from the league, but up from the owners. It’s nice to know someone affiliated with the NHL is thinking about growing the game.