The NHL’s Television Problem

The recently completed NHL regular season saw expanded television coverage for U.S. viewers on Versus (now the NBC Sports Network) and NBC. That coverage brought more games into the homes of viewers in the States, and that was welcome news for hockey fans and the game of hockey, as viewership increased significantly in the just completed season.

Here are the appearances that each team had in the national prime time spotlight:

Detroit Red Wings 16

New York Rangers 16

Pittsburgh Penguins 16

Boston Bruins 15

Philadelphia Flyers 12

Chicago Blackhawks 12

Washington Capitals 11

Buffalo Sabres 11

Tampa Bay Lightning 11

Minnesota Wild 10

Colorado Avalanche 9

St. Louis Blues 9

L.A. Kings 7

Dallas Stars 7

New Jersey Devils 7

San Jose Sharks 6

Anaheim Ducks 6

Montreal Canadiens 6

Carolina Hurricanes 4

Phoenix Coyotes 4

Vancouver Canucks 2

Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Columbus Blue Jackets 2

Nashville Predators 2

Winnipeg Jets 1

New York Islanders 1

Florida Panthers 1

Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary did not have an appearance on a national broadcast in the States.

Notice anything here?

Three of the top four teams in number of appearances are out of the playoffs. Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh are gone.

Chicago is gone from the playoffs in the first round. Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota, all teams with double digit national appearances did not make the playoffs.

And this is a problem.

Not for the fact that these teams are gone from the playoffs- or didn’t even get into the playoffs. No, the problem lies with the parochial nature of the NHL’s television coverage.

It seems that those in charge at NBC think that fans of the game are only interested in watching some teams play. By overexposing some teams, the network is vesting their interest in those particular teams not only making the playoffs, but going deep into the playoffs. The familiarity of those teams to the casual fan will be enough to entice them to watch the coverage the network provides.

There is a concern that with some of the “big name” teams out of the playoffs, viewer interest may wane and there will be fewer eyes on Conference finals or the Stanley Cup Finals.

There is some legitimacy to that concern. Having a team like Nashville in the SCF means that there is a team from the 30th largest U.S. television market, and this obviously means that the viewers in a market like, say New York, will not be as interested as they would be if the Rangers were playing. Every TV in Nashville could be on the game and it would not generate the interest that it would if the local New York team was playing.

Ratings are integral to NBC. They should be.

That fact is undeniable.

Ratings alone should not solely drive the television coverage, though.

Two of the Western Conference semi-finalists combined for 6 national appearances, less than half of the top 4 team, of which 2 have been eliminated. Two of the teams going to a game 7 in the Eastern Conference combined for 1 national appearance.

As a hockey fan, am I to believe that these 4 teams did not play some compelling, interesting, and exciting hockey, especially in the second half of the season as the playoff races were coming into focus? As a fan, was watching a Minnesota or Tampa Bay, well out of the playoffs late in the season, must see hockey?

It would seem that the League,in partnership with NBC, would want to cultivate broad interest in the game. Obviously, that would mean showing the games of the storied franchises. They are good for ratings. It should also mean giving exposure to smaller market teams that are playing good hockey, that have an interesting match up or story line. Those games, too, would be good for ratings and broaden the exposure of the League and its teams. Showing a game that has no bearing on the standings or does not have a compelling story is…boring.

The over exposure of certain teams leaves the network- and the League- vulnerable when those teams are eliminated early, as several have been this playoff season. Vulnerable to suddenly having to generate interest from the casual fan for a team that has had little to no exposure during the course of the regular season.

The serious hockey fan is watching the game even if their team is out of the playoffs.

Broadening the interest in the game from the casual fan involves cultivating interest and story lines in more teams throughout the season, not just in the playoffs.

With the salary cap and parity in the League, the potential for this problem will be with the League for the foreseeable future.

And it needs to change.

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About the Author: A native Nashvillian that grew up with minor league hockey, I'm now a devoted Predators fan and NHL follower. I have had the privilege of allowing my children to grow up watching the Predators and seeing the joy on their face when they are at a game. By day, I am a partner in an independent investment management company in the Nashville area. I played collegiate football and graduated from the University of South Carolina and graduated from the LSU graduate School of Banking. So yes, there are real true southern hockey fans in these non-traditional markets.

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