Following the conclusion of the NHL labor dispute, the curiosity of hockey fans shifted from the specifics of a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players to questioning its own reaction to the sport’s return. Would hockey fans come back to the game after the NHL lockout led to the cancellation of almost half of the regular season schedule? Would there be a backlash for the long, drawn out and at times, bitter labor dispute that resulted in foolishly minimal alterations to proposals at the very beginning of negotiations?
Last week, we briefly posited the idea that it was in the Canadian sports media’s best interest to report that hockey fans are back in droves because the livelihood and occupational success of many journalists depend on interest in what’s happening in the NHL. However, any talk of self-serving media conspiracy theories were quickly quashed once the television ratings for the first few games of the season were released.
More than a quarter of Canada’s population watched a portion of the opening night broadcast of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens game – the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference from the previous season - on Hockey Night In Canada. On average, 3.3 million people watched the game. It was record viewership for a regular season game in that time slot. In fact, records were set in all three of the broadcast’s time slots, with an average of 1.49 million viewers for HNIC’s 3 PM ET Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets premiere, and 1.47 million for the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks game.
According to the CBC, there were an additional 30,000 live web stream viewers for the afternoon and West Coast broadcasts, and 80,000 more for the Eastern Time Zone’s prime time match.
Of course, in hockey-mad Canada, outrageous numbers are almost to be expected. Broadcasts in the United States are a different matter. Amidst a smattering of regional success, the NHL has notoriously struggled on American television. Less than a decade ago, the NHL reached a national broadcast deal with NBC in which the network would pay the league no rights fees. Instead, the league would share advertising revenues with the network. The practice was completely unheard of for a major professional sports league.
After a couple of year-to-year contract renewals, and the introduction of the largely successful Winter Classic broadcast, NBC announced on April 19, 2011, that a ten-year television contract extension had been reached with the NHL worth nearly $2 billion. The contract covered games on both NBC and its sports cable channel Versus, which would later be rebranded as NBC Sports Network. In addition to weekend coverage, the deal included the broadcast of as many as 90 games per season on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, as well as an increased number of televised playoff games and Games 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to be aired on NBC, with Games 3 and 4 on NBC Sports Network. In addition, the deal gave NBC the rights to air future Winter Classics – a lucrative commodity – over the life of the contract.
The agreement was a major step forward for the NHL, speculated to be worth three times the revenue that the league had been receiving under the previous arrangement. However, following the most recent labor dispute, there was reason to be worried about the happiness of its broadcast partner. The realization of how easily one’s life can carry on without a particular sport can often be enlightening. Fortunately for NBC, the only revelation taking place among American hockey fans was apparently how much they missed the sport.
NBC’s coverage of opening day hockey received a 2.0 overnight rating, the highest regular-season ratings for the NHL in 11 years (not including the Winter Classic), while regular-season bests were recorded in three major markets – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, regional broadcasts in Boston (NESN), Columbus (FOX Sports Ohio) and St. Louis (FOX Sports Midwest) all set records on the opening day of the shortened season.
Of course, large television numbers for home openers and popular rivalries are one thing. Sustaining viewership over the course of a season is quite another. Before we begin claiming that NHL broadcasts in the United States have undergone a revival, we’ll need a little bit more evidence.
Last week, NBC Sports Network introduced “Wednesday Night Rivalry,” a broadcast featuring the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. The game ended up going to overtime where the Rangers won 4-3. However, the final score wasn’t the most impressive bit of news to come from the game. The result was actually overshadowed by the fact that the game – with 956,000 viewers tuning in - was the most-watched regular season game on American cable television in 11 years and the most-watched regular season NHL game in NBC Sports Network’s history.
After four televised games, NBC Sports Network has witnessed a 53% rise compared to viewership numbers from the same time period during the 2011-12 season.
With hockey’s popularity trending toward an all-time high across North America, it’s possible that a shortened scheduled, which translates into an increased number of meaningful games, bodes well for keeping the impressive viewership numbers from decline. It’s remarkable, but it seems as though the NHL, just over a week into its regular season, might have actually benefitted from its labor dispute in a fashion that no other North American sports league has ever done previously.
The Dumb Thing That Don Cherry Said
After taking up the entire first half of Coach’s Corner to justify the role of the enforcer in the modern game, Don Cherry spent the last two minutes of his popular Saturday night segment chastising Nail Yakupov for his celebration on Thursday night, when he scored a game-tying goal against the Los Angeles Kings with five seconds remaining in regulation.
During his defense of fighting in hockey – profuse with platitudes – the CBC employee assumed a feminine voice to represent the opposing view, mispronounced a Belarusian player’s name (presumably on purpose) and showed highlights of two hockey fights. After praising the heroics of those who stopped the game to beat each other with their fists, he proceeded to criticize a jubilant celebration of a goal, the scoring of which often leads to triumph in the game of hockey. A misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic appreciation of violence is acceptable. Joyful expression is not.
Just act like an idiot like this, and you’ll get in our highlights. [...] LA is going to remember this. They are going to remember this to the dying day. That you don’t do stuff like that. [...] Don’t act like that, kids. You’ll get in trouble every time. Not only did he hurt himself. He hurt Edmonton, too.
Edmonton went on to win the game in overtime.
Your Narrative Is Written Of The Week
Kelly Hrudey, color commentating during Saturday night’s Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames game, continued Don Cherry’s poorly written narrative, less than four hours later. After Yakupov carried the puck from his own end to the blue line of the opposition, and attempted to skate into the offensive zone rather than pass the puck, Hrudey labelled the play selfish and a mistake that would be corrected by the Edmonton coaching staff. The former goaltender neglected to mention how the young defenseman drew a slashing penalty late in the second period which resulted in a scoring opportunity for the Oilers.
Hrudey now partners with Rick Ball for the West Coast Hockey Night In Canada games replacing Kevin Weekes and Mark Lee.
Your Oral History Of The Week
Deadspin. Its origin. The story of how an irreverent sports site made the big leagues. For some reason, it’s a story published by Ad Week.
Your Paying To Be A Sports Reporter Of The Week
Steve Spurrier, the head football coach of the University of South Carolina, handed out envelopes with $100 cash inside to reporters who were able to answer his half-time trivia questions during Saturday’s basketball game between South Carolina and Arkansas at Colonial Life Arena.
Your New Rules Of The Week
On Thursday the PGA Tour protected its broadcast partners by sending out an e-mail to members of the golf-covering media threatening penalties for journalists who send “real-time, play-by-play transmission in digital outlets,” single-handedly increasing the desire to tweet about and live blog golf events more than a Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson fist fight.
From Ty Votaw, the PGA’s Executive VP of Communications:
Beginning this year, we will revoke the on-site credentials of all journalists affiliated with outlets that post play-by-play coverage, whether those posts are originating from tournament site or otherwise.
Your Interview Of The Week
Dr. Phil sat down with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the alleged perpetrator of the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, late last week to record an interview that will air this week. This is because we, as a society, remain in desperate need of more moralizing on this issue.
Your GIF Of The Week
It’s a runaway snowmobile that bucks its rider off in mid-air and proceeds to run down spectators at the X-Games, courtesy of Cork Gaines.
Your Viral Video Of The Week
This is why you never record a press conference with a cell phone. Even if you “always” remember to use the Do Not Disturb setting, the one time out of 100 that you don’t, this is what happens: