The NHL on TV

The hockey season ended with a whimper rather than a bang for me: a whimper as the Sharks stumbled out of the semis, and a whimper as the Stanley Cup playoffs ended without my having had a chance to see more than a tiny handful of the playoff games that were being shown.

The latest numbers regarding the final days of the tournament seem to confirm that my experience was far from unique: not many people tuned in for this years final games. This just drives home something that I’ve believed for a while: regardless of how much more cash they picked up in the deal, giving NHL broadcast rights to the Vs. network instead of ESPN was a serious mistake. It’s sapped momentum from the league at a time when it needs to be rebuilding.

Some stats:

  • Vs. currently reaches 72 million homeslink. ESPN and ESPN2 are in more than 93 million.
  • Vs. is in less than half of cable/satellite-equipped homes in the LA market. ESPN is in 100%.

Let me say first: this is not about ratings. Hockey is, as is increasingly the mantra, a niche sport, and it is never going to dominate the ratings the way that football or the World Series does. On the other hand, there’s something to be said about 1) growing the game, and 2) reaching existing fans that want to stay involved, or have fallen away.

Everyone stopped watching hockey during the lockout. The lockout ended and, to the viewing public, hockey never really came back to TV, unless you already live in a local market. Even if you are in a local market, the Vs. contract means that some of the more important games (such as the quarter- and semi-final regional games) won’t be available to you. The justifications for cutting out half or more of your audience from significant games is just lame: how can you possibly grow the sport by showing it to fewer people, with poorer production?

Secondly, the poor availability of Vs. means that by the time the nationally broadcast games come around, people have already lost interest. As the final nail in the coffin, the scheduling of east coast games during the finals means that for most of us in the west (you know, where this years championship team came from) weren’t home from work by the time the tournament was over.

Please: do what it takes to get the NHL back on a first-tier cable network. If you’re not convinced that TV is important to the growth of the sport as a whole, ask a Blackhawks fan. Poor media coverage can kill a single franchise, and do the same to the whole league.

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