A Long-Winded Rant About Rangers/Flyers and the State of the NHL On NBC’s Scheduling Decisions

(NOTE: Many ratings figures were culled from this site, but everything I couldn’t find came from the wonderful Sports Media Watch)

There are solid reasons to pick April 3rd’s New York Rangers/Philadelphia Flyers game. Fact is, the Flyers are a compelling team to watch lately, as they’ve had uneasy moments and are in danger of losing the number one seed. The way the Eastern Conference is, who knows if the Rangers will be assured a post-season berth in two and a half weeks? Besides, it is one of the league’s more rough-and-tumble rivalries, a classic rivalry, and no one can possibly think that we’ll see the Rangers trounce the Flyers to the tune of a touchdown and an extra point.

There are outside reasons not to bet on another of the two games: if you took the Puck the Media-endorsed option of Lightning/Blackhawks, not only are you banking on a team that hasn’t made a national television appearance since 2007, you also take the Blackhawks/Red Wings showdown on the final day of the season off limits for flexing. The Blackhawks would’ve used up all four appearances, and NBC would be stuck with either Bruins/Devils or Stars/Wild, two games that – while they could see teams in a life or death playoff situation – could feature teams with little-to-nothing to play for, and even worse, have nothing to play for and be out of the playoff race. At least the Wings and Hawks are fairly assured they’ll be in, and even if Chicago’s not, I’m sure it’d be solid fun to see them up against the wall for the season’s final day.

But come on … do I really have to sit through another Rangers/Flyers game? I know that one of them was regionalized, but the majority of the NHL fans in this country will be forced to sit through a third New York/Philadelphia telecast this season as part of a nationally televised “Game of the Week” package that only airs 10 times a season. 30% of the games some fans who don’t have VERSUS have seen on national television have been Rangers/Flyers.

Not only that, but the Rangers have proven to be ratings cancer in recent years. Though they drew a 1.2 as part of regional coverage against the Flyers in February, their game in March drew an 0.9 overnight and an 0.8 final rating, tying a season low. Before that, the team appeared once on NBC last year and drew a pitiful 0.5 final rating for a game against the Bruins, tying the network’s all-time low and potentially hockey’s all time low on broadcast television. That was preceded by a 2008 playoff season in which the two games from the Rangers series against the Capitals drew an 0.8 and an 0.7 final rating, respectively. The only time the Rangers have drawn a 1.0 final rating in the Game of the Week era (though to be fair, the Game has drawn a 1.0 very few times) was for a January 18, 2009 game vs. the Penguins.

Even worse, the Rangers/Flyers game will be in the midst of opening weekend for Major League Baseball in two cities where the fervor for the American past-time is at it’s peak. Philadelphia has fallen in love with the Phillies as deeply as it has in my memory, short as it may be. Meanwhile, the ratings dominance of the always passionate Yankees fanbase and the potential train-wreck watch-ability of the Mets will no doubt intrigue New York baseball fans. Both have afternoon games the day of this telecast, as do the Phillies. It will be hard to find an audience in a typically difficult sports landscape.

Like I said, the Game of the Week draws so few 1.0 final ratings anyway, but that may be the point to all of this. Why is the NHL and NBC sticking with what isn’t working. Minnesota and Tampa Bay might not set the earth on fire. In fact, we’re all fairly certain they won’t. However, there are hockey fans out there who have simply fatigued from watching the same six or seven teams over and over again. The Game of the Week needs new blood. This is news to no one, but it goes unchanged. The final game of the season will no doubt be Red Wings/Blackhawks, responsible for the game that tied Rangers/Bruins as the lowest for the NHL in their broadcast television history. Not a chance to be taken on Minnesota/Dallas or Boston/New Jersey. No chances taken, nothing gained.

One of these years the NHL is going to see it’s nightmare. The Penguins, Rangers, Flyers, Capitals, Blackhawks and Bruins will all miss the playoffs, or all exit after round one. Or four or five will miss the playoffs and whomever’s remaining will be in a series with a pesky Canadian team. They’ll be stuck with teams that haven’t seen the network television airwaves in years. Heck, it may even happen after round one. Can you imagine, NBC stuck with Vancouver, San Jose and Phoenix on one side, and Montreal, Tampa Bay and Buffalo or Carolina on the other? They’d be left with very few attractive options, at least on their side.

Because the fact is, the network doesn’t seem to trust that a certain hockey fans will watch whatever they throw out there, despite much evidence to the contrary. We’ve all seen the numbers: the Game of the Week simply draws a certain range that it will not go below or above for the time being, no matter what is done. This year is all but lost, however, in a new television deal, perhaps we can see a few more teams featured in. While the teams that are on national TV every week deserve it (most of the time) there are plenty of other teams that deserve it just as much, but get shut out because NBC believes that their already paltry ratings will be hurt. At some point, it must make sense to try something new. Will fans still have any interest in making time for a 12:30 PM ET Game of the Week when and if they finally do?

Just try something new, gang. Two teams we haven’t seen on NBC in awhile – heck, make it Buffalo and Minnesota, two markets with solid bases for the sport  – and see if it gets the same range of rating. Pick Minnesota/Dallas or Boston/Jersey on April 10th. See what number it gets. If I’m wrong, and it sets a new, even lower, all time low for the NHL on NBC, then I’ll admit to being wrong and you can never show a team outside your comfort zone again. But I’d be willing to bet that one of those two match-ups at least out-draws that awful Bruins/Rangers games or the seemingly traditional Red Wings/Blackhawks games that always end the season with a ratings thud.

To end my rambling, I hope we see NBC take a chance on more teams before they are simply forced to. I don’t think anyone would be looking forward to another Anaheim/Ottawa, but could we at least prepare everyone a little for Tampa Bay/Vancouver? Don’t laugh, hockey fans, NBC, the NHL, whoever’s reading … it could happen. There’s a good shot Vancouver makes it to the Final, in fact, you’d consider them the favorite. Will they get an NBC appearance even in the Conference Final? What about if the Lightning make a run? Will we eventually get Steven Stamkos on national TV? There are plenty of cities that could cause the NHL and NBC headaches in a Stanley Cup Final, but quite simply, both entities can soften the blow by giving a few of them more chances – or a chance at all – on the league’s supposed biggest television stage.