The National Hockey League is developing a reputation for making inane decisions, and the recent announcement that the Tampa Bay Lightning will not be allowed to host a viewing party for Thursday’s Eastern Conference Final Game 7 matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins is just the latest in a series of absurd examples.
— #GoBolts (@TBLightning) May 25, 2016
Tampa Bay Viewing Party Ban Another Example of Backwards NHL Thinking
The Lightning hosted an outdoor event near Amalie Arena on Sunday for Game 5 of the series, with thousands of fans in attendance to watch the Bolts win 4-3 in overtime. According to Deadspin, the reasoning given by the NHL for putting the kibosh on plans for a similar event for Game 7 is that teams are only permitted to hold one officially sanctioned TV viewing event per playoff series.
— #GoBolts (@TBLightning) May 23, 2016
It’s clear, however, that this NHL rule either doesn’t exist or is applied very selectively, as both the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues hosted at least two events in the Western Conference Final. Neither team was prevented from holding a second viewing party by the league.
In an effort to sidestep the NHL’s orders, the Tampa Bay Lightning are promoting a fan rally and block party at the local Channelside Bay Plaza, which is not an official team-organized event and therefore cannot be shut down by the league.
It’s no secret that TV ratings for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs are down, with no Canadian teams participating and the league’s largest American markets have been eliminated (with the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and New York Rangers all bowing out in the first round). As such, it’s rumoured that the pressure for shutting down viewing parties has come from national rights holder NBC. Viewership for both conference final series has been historically low, and a viewing party of several thousand people watching the same screen only counts for one.
Regardless, this is an incredibly short-sighted decision. The recent success of the Bolts (and to a lesser extent the Florida Panthers), now in their second consecutive conference final, has contributed immensely to the state of hockey in Florida. The Amalie Arena has been sold out for every game of the playoffs, and the Lightning were eighth in the NHL in overall attendance this season, coming off a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2015.
In the Cup Final last year, U.S. records were set both nationally and in the Tampa Bay local market for NHL TV ratings – Game 1 drew a 17.1 local rating on NBC. The local market is not the problem, and the Tampa Bay viewing party ban will not particularly help national ratings.
Preventing Lightning fans from coming together to watch is detrimental to the growth of the sport in the Sun Belt, because an event like the Bolts had for Game 5 would be much more likely to create new fans and generate interest than keeping people at home to watch on their own televisions – which seems like it would be the preferred scenario for the NHL and NBC.
We’ve all seen how watch parties grow fan hype and benefit the game – the Rangers had a similar event in Manhattan’s Bryant Park when they went to the Stanley Cup Final, and (crossing sports now) the NBA‘s Toronto Raptors have become famous for the exuberant crowds gathered outside the Air Canada Centre to watch playoff games, in a city where basketball has typically been the third sport.
This isn’t the first time the league has put a clampdown on public viewing parties, either. Earlier this year, the city of Boston was refused a permit to show the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in the Winter Classic on a big screen downtown.
The decision to shut down viewing parties is the epitome of a bandaid solution; the TV ratings for Game 7 may indeed be a tiny bit higher, but a public fan event would be far more beneficial to the status of the sport.
A History of Backwards NHL Decision-Making
There’s no shortage of moments to point at where the NHL made a short-sighted, greedy solution. The corporate league has shown time and again a serious disconnect between them and the fans. Going back to the 2016 Winter Classic, the league did not allow the Bruins to have their regular anthem singer – Rene Rancourt – or local Massachusetts band Dropkick Murphys perform. They instead opted for Nate Ruess, with no Boston connection, for the national anthems.
In 2015, after CapGeek shut down, commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated the NHL’s refusal to publish team salary cap information. He claimed that the fans didn’t care about contracts and salaries. Of course, several new websites popped up incredibly quickly that were populated with this information that fans don’t care about. The NHL did, to their credit, add some analytics to their website – not particularly in-depth, but some very useful tools – but remained too short-sighted to add salaries. Instead they decided it would be best to change the website interface to one that’s impossible to navigate. Note: The Nashville Predators recently published their salary cap info, but are the only NHL team to do so.
There are also all the unnecessarily confusing and reactionary rule changes. The wild card playoff format, the loser point in overtime, and the puck-over-the-glass penalty. Taking the cake, though, is the video review rule that has plagued the 2016 playoffs, where goals have been called back for hairline offsides that happened ages before the scoring play, by a player who wasn’t even involved. The obsessive nature of sticking to the letter of the law has slowed down recent games.
Finally, the most perfect example of the NHL’s asinine methods was the humiliating way in which they handled the John Scott situation at the 2016 All-Star Game. Attempting to make Scott cede his spot in the game, and (allegedly) influencing a trade that sent him miles away from his family. But enough has been said about that mess.
In short, the Tampa Bay viewing party ban solves nothing for the NHL. It creates apathy in the Lightning fanbase, and hurts the franchise by stopping an event that would generate hype and interest in the local team among residents who may not otherwise have watched the game.