Hockey schedule a bow to NBC

| Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tired, injured players slowing to a boring pace: It's the nightmare scenario for the National Hockey League that some critics say could happen when the Stanley Cup Final begins with back-to-back games this weekend.

But the schedule, which gets both games on network television, is not a mad grab for money, several sports business experts said Friday, but an effort to promote the game to keep hockey viewership growing.

"I don't think anybody would say it's the best thing for the sport to play back-to-back games as games one and two," said Anthony Moretti, a broadcast journalism professor at Point Park University.

"It's an option forced upon the NHL. And that's because the NHL doesn't have, I don't know if power or legitimacy are the right words, but it certainly doesn't have the bargaining power that the NBA or Major League Baseball would have."

After its canceled 2004-05 season, the NHL signed a television deal with Versus, a Comcast-owned cable network that reaches 75.2 million homes -- roughly 23 million fewer homes than the league's former partner, ESPN. Some fans, including players trying to watch from their hotels, complain that they still don't get the station.

The hockey playoffs have been shown on local channels, cable TV and on network television.

To help gain viewers, the league is airing up to five Stanley Cup Final games on NBC, starting today, leaving two games on Versus. But the trade-offs will be back-to-back games and switching between the network and cable that could confuse casual viewers, said Rick Gentile, professor of sport management at Seton Hall University.

Game 1 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings starts at 8 p.m.

The league needs nationwide exposure in its effort to rebuild, said Gentile. Still recovering from the canceled season, its playoffs get less than a fourth of the viewers of the NBA's. Its network television contract is a year-to-year agreement yet to be renewed.

The NHL Players Association director slammed the league's broadcast partners this month for inferior marketing and promotions.

NHL ratings have seen big spikes this year, as high as 33 percent during the conference semifinals. Versus had exclusive rights to the conference finals and averaged 1.7 million viewers nationally for those games, up 400,000 from last year, according to its ratings data. Versus will show Game 3 of the finals on Tuesday and Game 4 on Thursday.

Switching between NBC, which will show Games 5 through 7 if necessary, only makes the NHL about $100,000 per team, according to a May 3 report in the New York Post. The network pays no rights fees, and it split about $6 million in revenues with the NHL from last season, according to the report.

NHL and NBC spokesmen confirmed the deal, but declined to discuss numbers.

The league can't turn down the opportunity to switch to NBC for its nationwide audience, said Gentile, once a senior vice president at CBS Sports. NBC broadcasts reached more than 2 million viewers even in some early round games, and experts said the league needs the network to reach the casual fan and grow.

"Is it perfect, no• But I don't see how they turn down increasing their potential viewership by 50 percent," Gentile said.

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