Monday, February 02, 2009

Blog blast past: 'Embracing hockey's nichetude' can be spelled without N-B-C

NBC and NHL's television partnership might be on the rocks. It's no surprise. The Peacock network is hurting; no sports properties and it can't or won't properly promote Friday Night Lights (although Connie "Mrs. Coach" Britton sure can.) Friend of the blog Dan Rowe, saw this fracture coming back almost two years ago. That was after NBC cut away from the game that the Ottawa Senators won to advance to the Stanley Cup final, so you know it was some time ago. Here's Dan, from May 24, 2007:

NBC's decision to show the pre-race show for the Preakness Stakes instead of overtime of the decisive Game 5 of the NHL's Eastern Conference final last Saturday has earned the league more sports media attention in the U.S. than anything since Chris Simon's violent slash on Ryan Hollweg.

It was a stupid move by NBC, even if there was a financial logic to it. However, it was probably stupider for the NHL to put its games on NBC (for free) in the first place.

King Kaufman had a good column on Salon yesterday about how hockey fans south of the border need to embrace its "nichetude." Canadian hockey fans have to accept that the sport they love will always be a niche sport in the United States.

Even here in Central New York state where a fair number of people play the game and has relatively strong roots, a lot of people still call it ice hockey. Coverage of and interest in the NHL does not run deep. At a Syracuse Crunch game this season, I was fairly shocked to hear a young fan explain to a friend how Ty Conklin had cost Edmonton the first game of last year's Stanley Cup.

That shows that there are some hardcore fans in the U.S., but it is most unlikely that any of them have found the NHL through coverage on the broadcast networks -- FOX, ABC, and NBC -- that have carried the NHL since 1995. It’s unclear why the league and commissioner Gary Bettman -- and, frankly, the Canadian media -- are obsessed with the NHL's U.S. network TV arrangements.

With the exception of Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup final, there was no broadcast network TV coverage of the Stanley Cup finals in the U.S. for about 20 years from 1975-1995, a time that takes in the Islanders dynasty, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and the New York Rangers' first Cup since 1940. Today, as sports are moving away from network TV, the NHL is stuck with a network partner that won't show the end of its games and doesn’t pay any rights fees.

The NBA and the NHL will have the same number of games of their respective conference finals -- two -- on broadcast networks. Baseball's playoffs are moving to TBS this fall with the exception of one LCS and the World Series. With the exception of the NFL and a few massive events, network TV is done with sports. It would not be surprising if the NBA Finals, and maybe even the World Series, are on cable after the next contract. And it makes no difference. Most young people can't tell you whether TNT or ESPN is a cable network or a broadcast network, but they all know where they can find the NBA playoffs.

ESPN is probably off the table for the NHL, and it should be -- unless they create ESPN3, they won't get the time they need for coverage. The NHL does need to settle on a cable network and try to build a long-term relationship with them. Versus seemed like a potentially good idea, but when they lost out on the Thursday-Saturday NFL package and the baseball playoffs package, leaving them with rodeo and the America's Cup, the chances of drawing new viewers to the network evaporated.

In its next U.S. TV deal, the NHL should try and move up the cable dial to a channel that gets better placement and draws a more general audience, like the USA Network or FX -- and stick with them for everything, including the Cup final.

The playoff coverage on Versus is quite extensive -- the quality is another question, though. They show as many games as they can during the early rounds, including doubleheaders almost every night. After that they pick up the NHL Network's post-game coverage for an hour or more. If the NHL could get that on a slightly more prominent cable network, they would be in better shape.

(UPDATE:: Chris Zelkovich notes the league has been strangely silent.)

Dan Rowe, a former Queen’s Journal editor, is a writer and doctoral student in Syracuse, N.Y. Feedback can be sent to


Anonymous said...

I am quite happy to have hockey forever remain a niche sport in the USA. If it ever became #1 in US fan interest, the good ole USA would simply appropriate it as its own, take absolute control of its running in the NHL and on the international scene, and just roll over us.Let the elephant sleep undisturbed. Disturb it and it will just roll over onto us.

Greg said...

Dan, I think you're completely right. One interesting angle to add here: the role of the Internet in long-term coverage of the league.

CBC has done a pretty good job thus far at online video of games (albeit CTV beat them to the punch with the World Juniors being streamed online - strange how a private broadcaster in Canada would beat the public broadcaster to technology like that, given how that kind of situation would be reversed in the U.K. with the BBC), and I'm interested to see how that will play out over time.

Monetizing webcasts of NHL games is a dicey proposition for any network, however. Until broadband access reaches bandwidth capacities that allow for high-quality streaming that doesn't stall, it's hard to get people to watch a game on a computer over a TV set (although Apple TV could change that).

Thoughts? Hope you're doing well these days.

Anonymous said...

Bettman's gotta go!!

Dennis Prouse said...

For live events, most internet streaming I have seen still has the hallmarks of old Soviet television -- jerky, stalling, sound out of alignment, etc. You're going to have a hard time convincing any critical mass of people to pay for that product until such time as the quality becomes more consistent.

dan said...

Greg and Dennis: I think there is definite potential in the role of the Internet. The NHL does, too. Bettman was on Mike and the Mad Dog yesterday afternoon talking about the NBC thing and explained how he keeps track of the league while he travels by using a Slingbox and by watching games live on his phone. There aren't a lot of fans who can do this. But Internet streaming is getting better, if you have the tools. And the key for the NHL (or anyone who wants to do this), I think, will be providing as much unique content as possible, ie. allowing people to pick their own real-time stats to follow, allowing online viewers to choose their own camera angles, allowing them access to replays, providing extensive pre- and post-game coverage (like the CBC is apparently doing), etc.