Time For the NHL to Show Serious Growth in America with New Television Deal

It was an NFL Sunday and a Major League Baseball Postseason Sunday, but the NHL had a presence. Viewers reported seeing ads on CBS’ broadcast of New England-Oakland for the Bruins opener, at least in the Boston area. Meanwhile, during NBC’s Sunday Night Football marquee matchup between the Jets and Ravens, the NHL’s opening night doubleheader on VERSUS got at least three promos (and a live read from Al Michaels) on their corporate partner network. This is something that you weren’t seeing a few years ago. NBC, of course, has two billion reasons to give the NHL on VERSUS/NBC Sports Net an advertising presence on it’s highly-rated Sunday Night Football telecasts. The fact the NHL had an advertising presence on a massive football Sunday just a few days before their season’s opening face-off, however, was a great buy for the league, and part of why there aren’t any excuses for the NHL to improve itself into a better television player over the next decade in the NBC corporate family.

This could be a huge season for hockey on TV. The league is adding nearly 25% more games on it’s cable television partner, and doubling the number of exclusive games on VERSUS. For now, we must operate under the assumption that the NBA will be gone for at least a little while, and perhaps a full year. College football is in a down year, ratings-wise. Baseball numbers continue to slip (though, let’s be honest, a Yankees-Tigers Game 5 on NHL Faceoff Thursday would be a massive ratings killer). Now is the time for hockey to strike, to increase it’s share of the sports television marketplace.

NBC seems to be making it clear that hockey is one of their marquee properties. They’re relaunching a sports network with what is essentially hockey games (with some college football, MLS, IndyCar and an increased studio presence mixed in). The NFL’s much talked about first-half Thursday night package, even if VERSUS is the favorite, is at least two years away. College football is nice, but with the Big East collapsing, the Pac-12 moving out and the Mountain West’s growth stalling, there’s not much room for NBC to increase it’s presence there. Major League Baseball’s TV deal is still likely at least a year away from bidding, and one can bet ESPN wants those post-season games, while Turner won’t want to budge on losing them. The message is pretty clear: The NBC Sports Network is betting on hockey for now, as Comcast’s OLN and VERSUS bet on hockey for so many years.

That’s why seeing all the advertising for hockey during the NFL was so encouraging. Football is this country’s religion. 15-20 million people per week will watch a bad Sunday night game on NBC. The network is also home to the Super Bowl. NBC may be unable to draw flies for entertainment programming, but their sports properties have a real track record for success. Think to yourself: did you ever remember seeing promos for ESPN hockey coverage on ABC’s Monday Night Football? I hope this isn’t only an opening night thing, and we’ll see hockey promos every week, leading up to Super Bowl Sunday (NBC Sports Net is actually airing a game that afternoon while NBC handles pre-game coverage).

The NHL has done a marvelous job at setting up tentpole events. The Winter Classic is the most-watched regular season game each year, and while Rangers-Flyers at Citizens Bank Park on January 2nd isn’t exactly knocking anyone’s socks off, it is no slouch of a game either. Taking a year off every four years and creating more events to surround it seem to have boosted the All-Star Game, which has grown each season it has been on VERSUS. The Stanley Cup Playoffs getter better numbers each season as well, to the point where VERSUS is getting better numbers than ESPN. This season, expect them to grow even further with exclusive games from round two on, and every playoff game finding a television home on the NBC family of networks. (You’re watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs on the Style Channel!) The NHL is finding growth in places both expected (the Winter Classic getting bigger) and unexpected (Hockey Day in America, and who saw the NHL All-Star Game finding renewed relevance coming?) to create a more exciting hockey calendar. With Face-off in October, the Black Friday NBC game in November, the Winter Classic and All-Star Weekend in January, and Hockey Day in America and Canada in February, there’s more to look forward too in what was once a sea of regular season tilts for eight months before the greatest tournament in sports.

What are my hopes for this season? That the league will start to flex some muscle on VERSUS. How about (again, if there’s no Yankees on Thursday) one million viewers for Bruins-Flyers on Thursday? Why not? The league drew 730,000 on opening night last year (for the non-banner hanging Penguins-Flyers game) against the Yankees-Twins series. This year, you’ve got so much around the game that can draw viewers. There’s a Boston market dying to move on from the sadness of the Red Sox demise. A Philadelphia more than a little curious to see how Paul Holmgren’s massive shakeup affected the team. Hockey diehards will want to see the return of Jaromir Jagr. So why not a million? If there’s no baseball (or merely Rays-Rangers) I’d be surprised if the game didn’t even come close. Hey, if 100,000 people want to watch a pre-season Devils-Flyers game, there must be anticipation.

Last season was the most watched NHL slate in VERSUS history. The network drew 353,000 viewers per game, up from 297,000 in 2010-11 and 311,000 in 2009-10, despite having increased coverage from 10-11 to 11-12. Now, will the even greater exposure improve hockey ratings? Or will the market become diluted? I’m honestly not sure, but one would think VERSUS and the league will find a way to keep ratings at least on par with last season, if not up. The games will struggle against Monday Night Football and general early season malaise, but once January rolls around and the NBC Sports Network push happens, there needs to be a respectable increase. The doubleheaders between and NBC and NBCSN will be an equally intriguing experiment, to see if ratings for big-market match-ups that weren’t quite good enough for NBC draw well on Sunday nights.

How studio programming surrounding NHL games on VERSUS grows will be another story. NBC Sports Talk has drawn okay numbers on Friday nights when Peter King and Mike Florio preview the weekend’s NFL action, but aside from that, Sports Talk and Monday evening’s College Football Talk have been bust with no real programming to get viewers to VERSUS early in the evening. Hopefully, hockey can help that, but if not, where does VERSUS turn? Is there a way to bring NBC football host (and VERSUS’ NFL Turning Point head-man) Dan Patrick’s radio show to the network? What about a mid-day/afternoon call-in show featuring King and Florio and another high profile host to get viewers to the network even earlier, and create a bit of a buzz while ESPN and ESPN2 launch talk show after talk show themselves to supplement the hours and hours of SportsCenter? VERSUS still maintains a big split between the viewers who tune in for outdoor programming during the day, and hockey/sports talk at night. Is there any way to reach out to both and make the network more of a destination? Perhaps not, but it is certainly worth trying.

In addition to all of that, NHL Overtime is returning, but not in a way that hockey fans may see as ideal. Overtime – which will star Bill Patrick and Jeremy Roenick (hey, how about getting him a show?) – now only airs three nights a week (after VERSUS’ NHL games) until January, when it will expand to Friday and Sunday (another VERSUS NHL night). This is a bit baffling, considering there is almost always more NHL action on Thursdays and Saturdays than Fridays and Sundays. It also, essentially, gives VERSUS a 90-minute post-game show, as there will be no break in between NHL Live (the actual post-game) and NHL Overtime. But as long as Roenick provides us with some entertaining soundbites, and they continue the practice from last year of updating west coast highlights for the 2 a.m. ET rerun, there is potential for the program.

I’d also like to see the league finally start to grow the Game of the Week on NBC. Let’s face it, even as the playoffs grow and the Stanley Cup Final grows, ratings on NBC remain stuck in first gear. The overnight ratings for NBC slipped from a 1.2 to a 1.1 last year, and that’s despite the Winter Classic growing and Hockey Day in America being a solid draw. The league has never really grown the sport in the regular season indoors, but there seems to be a real attempt to correct that this year. The Black Friday tilt between the Bruins and Red Wings should do at least an okay number, and a Red Wings-Blackhawks game just 10 days after the Winter Classic is the earliest the network has ever started their post-Classic telecast schedule. They can only do so much with the limited teams they program. I’m of a mind that the league should go back to regionalizing, and while the one game on NBC/one game on VERSUS method is a way to increase hockey’s presence on Sundays, I’d still like to see a back-up game to get more teams and fans into the national mix.

The NHL Network has a part to play in this performance, too. The league’s channel does a good job during the regular season, certainly better than it’s woeful off-season programming, but they must find a way to add destination shows. Doing four hours live from Boston on opening night with Marty Turco and Mike Modano is an improvement. But look at how MLB Network fills the hours of the day. Look at NFL Network. NHL Live (the NHL Network version) is fine. NHL On the Fly is fine too. Can’t we do more, however? Is there not someway to fill, say, the hours of Noon-5 p.m. ET with more than just replays from the night before? I hope the Network is improving, and have a lot of faith that it will. Showing an enormous amount of games helps.

Which is the main reason why, even with all the questions, I am as optimistic about this season from a league-wide, television standpoint than I have been for any since I started following all this. There will be live hockey almost every night of the season. We’ve gone from a Monday/Tuesday night OLN game, with maybe an NBC game thrown in, to hockey all around the calendar year. By the time spring rolls around, we’ll have been dealt four nights a week on VERSUS, three nights a week on NHL Network, and NBC on Sundays. Improvement or not, it has never been better to be an American hockey fan. Hopefully, it will be better than ever to be in the business of televising hockey, too.

About Steve Lepore
Contact me at stevemlepore@gmail.com

2 Responses to Time For the NHL to Show Serious Growth in America with New Television Deal

  1. paranoidpuck says:

    Great Stuff Steve. I like your idea of Versus airing a talk show during the day. Dan Patrick probably won’t be there because his show is owned by DirecTV. DTV is a competitor to Comcast and Dan’s show is used to heavily promote DTV. I just don’t see how they would ever allow it. The other issue is that outdoors programming is usually a nice moneymaker for networks. I don’t know what arrangements Versus has with their producers but on many networks, outdoors shows are a form of paid programming. Producers and sponsors pay for the timeslot. I don’t know if that’s the case at Versus but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case.

    I do have one question to throw out there. I’ve never understood the fascination of fans and TV ratings. As a fan, what do YOU get out of it? If the league’s ratings take off, will you get anything? Perhaps higher ticket prices and a more expensive NHLCI. You might get some more coverage on the air but will it be worth it?

    Honestly, right now, the league is nearly perfect coverage wise. Sure, NHLN needs some serious changes but the league’s TV presence satisfies my needs as a fan for the most part. I don’t need the league to take off and be shoved down my throat incessantly. Invariably, the larger something gets, the worse it gets. It doesn’t matter if its music, sitcoms, or sports, there’s always changes that come with growth and the original diehards usually get left behind.

    My fear is that the NHL will turn to more gimmicks and rule changes to try to attract new fans and I don’t want that. I don’t need a bunch of gimmicks, they will only turn me away. NASCAR decided to turn to gimmicks and focused on the almighty dollar over their fans. Now, NASCAR is seeing its attendance and TV ratings slide. The same thing could happen to the NHL.

    I think it would be good to see hockey do better and get some more attention, but as a fan, I’m happy with the way it is right now. If we were in an era without the internet, I’d probably feel differently or if the ratings were at the OLN level and there weren’t any NHL shows on the air. But today, I can find my highlights & news from many sources and that’s all I need as a fan.

  2. Stephen says:

    Great article. Like the way you brought up Dan Patrick Show as well. It’s pretty good even though I have other stuff to do in the mornings except for other days that are my day offs.

    I like to see it on VERSUS as well but it owned by DirecTV.

    Also, NBC is real serious with airing hockey and promoting during the Sunday Night Football games as well. So it should be interesting where it could keep going with the ratings growing.

    I’ve been also watching NBC Sports Talk on VERSUS and it’s great. Thank goodness I’m not watching SportsCenter no more because they don’t talk about NHL games anyway so screw them. NBC Sports Talk Rules.

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