While it may come as a surprise to some that NBC pulled out of the bidding to be the second TV partner for the NHL, it really should not as the writing was on the wall. The NHL had made no bones they wanted to go back on ESPN. And NBC was not going to play bridesmaid or second fiddle to ESPN. Not to mention once the first part of the deal was announced, it was surprising to see the second part take so long. If NBC was going to be the second partner, it would have been announced right away. In addition, with NBC shutting down NBCSN, there was no place for hockey to go. NBC grew the NHL to a point, but never took it to the next level. The NHL is hoping ESPN and Turner, who was just announced as the second TV partner will do that.
NHL on NBC Only Grew The Game to a Point
When the NHL was coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, they were looking for a national TV partner. The league had lost ESPN as their TV partner in the United States. NBC took a gamble on the NHL to get them back into the national spotlight. Not to mention, the deal at the time was very cheap for the company. For the past 15 years, the NHL has been on NBC. You knew exactly every night where to find games. From the previous incarnations of OLN (Outdoor Life Network), Versus, and NBCSN( NBC Sports Network). Plus over the last several years, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been broadcasted on the networks of NBC, which allowed fans to watch every series.
The NHL saw record ratings from NBC for regular season and playoff hockey games. Plus having a partner like NBC, the NHL created events like the Winter Classic, Stadium Series, and other attraction-type games to help grow the game. These events help drew eyeballs to the NHL. Everyone knew that January 1st was the Winter Classic and where to find the game. Regardless of the matchup, normally the same teams, people were going to watch. And having the games in historic outdoor venues drew even more viewers to the game. But that was how far NBC could grow the game of hockey.
Playing Second Fiddle
Just because NBC was the main TV partner in the United States, doesn’t mean they treated the NHL as their number one priority. And that goes for any network the NHL is on. But one thing is for sure when it came time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to be on, it should have been priority number one over a lot of things. Now the NFL will always be king. But you are telling me that the NHL was not a priority over horse racing? Fans who have watched games on NBC, know about the famous incident during Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Final where the Ottawa Senators played the Buffalo Sabres. The game started on NBC and switched the game over to Versus so the main network could show a four-hour pre-game show for horse racing.
Fans were outraged by this move. And they had every right to be. Not to mention, it maybe was mentioned once during the broadcast that if the game went to overtime it was switching channels. Not to say that wouldn’t happen on any other channel, but a trip to the Stanley Cup Final was on the line. There are instances where NBC put horse racing over the NHL during that time period. Just look at the start times during the playoffs, games are being played at 12 or 12:30 pm, instead of in prime time. Just look at this year, during the Lake Tahoe game. The NHL had to finish in the early morning on the east coast because of Saturday Night Live.
Was this a way of getting back at the NHL for not going to the Olympics? Maybe, but NBC was playing favourites way before the NHL bowed out of the 2018 Winter Olympics. And just look at the 2020-21 NHL schedule. With the Olympics at the end of July, NBC told the NHL they had to be done by July 15th or else there was no place to televise games if they went later than that. And with Peacock entering the fold, you know a lot of games were going to put on there if there were conflicts on the main networks.
Money Not Right For NHL on NBC
Regardless of how good a partnership is, it comes down to one thing: money. According to reports, NBC offered $100 million a season to be the second partner in this deal. That is $100 million less than what they were paying over the last 10 years per season. The NHL was looking to get a certain number. They got it with the ESPN and Turner deal. NBC was not willing to budge on that number. Plus they had already spent a ton on the NFL to keep Sunday Football and the Super Bowl. Not to mention the Olympics and other events. But just like leagues past, the NHL had to find greener pastures.
NBC Nine Always Shown
Another gripe fans had was during the national games on Wednesday and Sunday. It was the same teams over and over again. While early on it was cool to see Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin go head to head, after a while it gets repetitive. They always showed the big TV markets. For example, Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins. There was a handful that got thrown into the rotation because they were playing one of the “NBC Nine” teams. But it was only like one or two teams.
That is not how to grow a fan base. After a while, fans will tune away and the NHL has seen that with the numbers in the ratings. Fans want to see different matchups and players. The NHL needs to market the players not the teams to get people to watch. And it was like that for their big events too.
Even though NBC was a good fit for the NHL, in end the NHL had to do what was best for business… to use a wrestling phrase.
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