NHL & NBC Out of Touch With Potential Fan Base

Steve O Speak

By Guest Blogger Alan Zlot:

So what were you doing on the third Saturday in May at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time?  Perhaps you woke up, decided the weather was too good to pass up and worked in the yard. Maybe you took the kids to the park.  You’re single with no kids or a spouse you say. Great, then you were either recovering from Friday night, at work or headed out to do something with your friends.  If you’re reading this up north, perhaps you were at the Preakness or headed to a party.

Whatever your situation, why would you be at home in the middle of May on an early Saturday afternoon watching a hockey game?  Haven’t we all just spent the last six to seven months doing just that, staying at home for most the last 26 weekends because of the weather, or because there is nothing to do outdoors until the middle of spring?

Apparently, hockey fans, NHL’s Gary Bettman and NBC ‘s Dick Ebersol thinks that is exactly what you did, or should have been doing, yesterday.  Watching the NHL at 1:00 p.m. on a Saturday in May. Even the most die-hard hockey fans may have a hard time watching at this time slot.

The geniuses at both the NHL and NBC decided that showing Game 4 between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning in the middle of May on Saturday afternoon was a good idea for hockey. This is not the first time this spring that this exact scenario has occurred.  I’m sure the three goal comeback by the Lightning would have done nothing to show new fans how exciting the NHL can be.

FOX Sports, which regularly shows baseball games on Saturday afternoons in the summer, waited until primetime last night to show a useless interleague battle between the Yankees and Mets.

The NHL can cause you to scratch your head at times, specifically Gary Bettman.  I know that networks usually have the final say, but after a recent 10-year marriage was announced with NBC, surely the NHL thought differently about yesterday’s decision and surely they could of done something about it.

In April, the NHL signed their most lucrative television contract in league history with NBC and the Versus network. While the 10-year, two billion contract looks great for the NHL, the truth is, it only looks that way/ When you sit back and examine the deal, yesterday’s decision concerning game time does not seem all that hard to believe.  It is funny what the word ‘billion’ can do to influence one’s perception.  The new TV agreement is not that great when you consider the length of the deal and the lack of exposure the league will continue to be crippled by.

Yes, I know that serious hockey fans were glued to their TV’s yesterday (or were they?) watching Game 4 and will watch hockey wherever or however they must.  However, as a serious hockey fan, I want to see the sport grow. I am constantly defending the NHL and the decisions they make to my friends.

The NHL has the best playoff product of any of the four major sports and watching NBC use yesterday’s game as a prelude to the Preakness was, well, horse-spit.

Decisions like yesterday’s and more importantly, the new TV contract leaves me wondering if this is it in terms of popularity for the NHL.  Many boasted that the new TV deal was great for the NHL.  Yes, the money was significantly more, but if you look into the crystal ball, a lot more could have been had.

In my mind, the NHL blew it. Pure and simple. TV deals require foresight by smart people and again the NHL’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, proved he is not that person. The NHL has failed to market the best crop of players since the Gretzky era. The Bruins are an Original Six team, and the Bolts have a few superstars flying around the ice.

I know somewhere in the league’s office, some intelligence exists. Last June, the NHL had the foresight to extend their labor agreement by one season.  The owners agreed to sign an extension because they knew they could be the only sport playing in the fall/winter of 2011-12.  The players agreed because they knew that the owners were set to ink the new TV deal, which could be used as a bargaining chip for more money in the next labor negotiations.  If you thought the negotiations for the last labor agreement, which led to the loss an entire season, were ugly, just wait until after next season.

I am not sure how many of you knew this, but Donald Fehr is the executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association.  Google his name and get back to me if you can find the expression ‘labor harmony’ and Donald Fehr in the same sentence.

However, let me point out that the NHL’s agreement was not extended because the current version is working so well. It is being extended because there are so many issues that need to be worked out.  It would be an impossible task to have completed the negotiations before the original September 15, 2011 expiration date they were facing.

Even though the NHL drove up the price of this TV deal, who was really laughing last? Did they really sell the notion that they could be the only sport playing next fall?  ESPN and Fox were a part of the bidding. Couldn’t the NHL have allotted the games to a series of networks, similar to that of NASCAR or the NBA?  The league plays almost 2,500 games per season. There are  enough of them to go around and every major television market in the United States has a solid fan base.

Currently, the NHL receives about $80 million dollars a year in TV money.  The new deal will pay the league $200 million per year. That is a great deal for a league like the NHL, you say. No, it really is not when you look at some of the other sports.  The MLB’s latest contract is worth $3 billion per year, for only seven years. That works out to $428 million per year.  Ok then, what about comparing apples to apples.

Let’s look at the NBA. They have the same number of teams and play the same schedule during the same time of year.  It’s no contest, the NBA makes $930 million per year for all of its broadcast rights, a figure that makes the NHL look like the minor league commissioner that runs it.

Here is what really bothers me. NASCAR has 36 races and a TV deal worth an estimated $473 million per year — or twice what the NHL receives per season. NASCAR is broadcast over five networks and even their secondary series, the Nationwide series, has more exposure on network television than the NHL.

The new deal promises at least 100 games will be televised during the course of the season.  NBC, which was the mastermind behind the Winter Classic, will now bring you games the day after Thanksgiving and possibly games on Christmas day to compete with the NBA on ABC.

Well there it is more coverage than ever before. Again, not so fast.  This past season, Versus telecast 78 regular season games with NBC telecasting 13 more games for a grand total of 91 games.  Increasing to 100 games is only a whopping nine more games per season. So do not be fooled by the 100 in the advertising next year.

This TV deal and decisions like yesterday’s time slotted telecast are embarrassing to real hockey fans and leave no hope for the expansion of a sport that many simply need to be exposed to just once.  A game like yesterday that saw the Lightning come back from three goals down could have been a start for a new hockey fan.  That exposure is not going to come in the form of a Saturday afternoon contest leading up to horseracing or a Sunday game leading up to Bull Riding, golf or extreme sports.

Hockey is a major sport being run by a minor league commissioner. Repeatedly Gary Betman has shown he has no ability to prioritize what is best for the NHL.  It is funny watching Bettman squirm around the whole Winnipeg-Atlanta situation. He and the league have gone all in with Glendale, Az. and the Phoenix Coyotes, so all Bettman can do is watch and hope. You can bet your sweet hockey stick the commissioner does not want the Thrashers to move out of Atlanta. It would be another blow to Bettman and what he feels is a major part of his legacy as commissioner in the NHL.

Bettman believed that hockey could succeed in non-traditional hockey markets, like Phoenix and Atlanta. The Florida Panthers will most assuredly be the next to go and hopefully with them, Bettman will follow. Many Canadian fans have watched Bettman stand back and do nothing when cities like Winnipeg and Quebec lost their franchises.

I love hockey, and it is a good thing that there is no turning back for me. I am a Washington Capitals fan living in Florida, following the NHL.  Can you imagine how frustrated I must be?



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