The entire Stanley Cup Finals has never aired on cable. Back in the '60s and '70s and through the '80s, it was relegated to local stations, with maybe NBC or CBS picking up a game here and there. In the '80s and early '90s, local stations kept the rights, but all the games aired somewhere on cable, like ESPN or SportsChannel America. Even the early USA Network.
Into the modern age, there's been a more clear definition of this. All games air nationally, some on cable, some on broadcast. FOX and ESPN divided games up equally in the late '90s, but the games FOX had the rights to usually never got to air because of sweeps. The Cup was only handed out on FOX once in five years in which they held the rights. The NHL remedied this decision by putting only the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals on cable for ESPN or OLN/VERSUS, then handing things off to ABC or NBC.
In 2009, however, things changed. Thinking they could gain more momentum, ratings-wise, for the Stanley Cup Finals, they switched the first two games to the broadcast network (NBC) and then put Games 3 & 4 on cable (VERSUS, now NBC Sports Network). It had the desired effect: Games 1 and 2 drew about the same numbers as Games 3 and 4 had on broadcast, and cable was seeing better ratings than ever for more meaningful games. It seemed like a perfect situation.
Until this year, when the possibility of a sweep came up. Last night was the first chance for a potential sweep of the Stanley Cup Finals since 1998. People were furious, especially out in Los Angeles, where I heard numerous complaints when I was interviewed on the local NPR affiliate. They were upset that the team's first chance at clinching a Stanley Cup in 45 years wasn't available to everyone with a television. Which, as complaints go, is pretty reasonable.
Demand was so high that KNBC (Los Angeles's O & O NBC affiliate) sports anchor Fred Roggin basically begged the higher-ups to let the Los Angeles NBC station air the game. For weeks, he apparently tried to use the pull he felt he had as a 30-year employee of the company (and, as I was made aware of last night, a big hockey fan) to get NBC to let KNBC broadcast the game. This wasn't the affiliate fighting hockey, as it seems they were totally willing to put the game on their airwaves. The bosses told him "no."
I'm a big defender of how NBC does things. There are a lot of complaints about the network, some of them are justified, but a lot of them are way over the top and some are just flat-out not based on fact. I will defend, as much as I need to (I won't physically fight you, I guess?), NBC's right to put two games on cable. Those are the biggest nights of the year for NBC Sports Network, just like those games used to be the biggest nights of the year for ESPN before they got the BCS. The way television's moving, it's more than likely we'll see -- at some point -- an NBA Finals or World Series game or two on cable. The BCS Championship is on ESPN, in a couple of years the NCAA Final Four will be on TBS. It's a way for Gary Bettman to call himself a trailblazer. I see nothing wrong with being ahead of the curve.
But if you've got an NBC station in the second-largest market in the country basically begging you to put the game on, giving you a chance to sell NBC Sports Network to hundreds of thousands of potential new customers? I think you've gotta say yes to that. I mean, I don't have to tell them to do anything, but it just seems like good business. Keeping Game 3 on cable is fine, but to not at least give everyone in Los Angeles a chance to see the Cup raised -- even if it's just the third period and the post-game ceremony -- seems more than a little cruel, and almost bad business sense.
Here's how I think we avoid this in future years. One, switch the schedule. You can play with it any way you want now that all of the production is under one NBC banner. Put Game 1 on NBC to start the series off with momentum. Then, you put Games 2 & 3 on NBC Sports Network, but you give the local stations an option to air the game on their alternate networks, if not the main networks (NBC O&O's now have alternate, digital channels that are occasionally used for sports programming) and -- while were at it -- involve the affiliates more in the series, as NBC does with the Olympics. Make it mandatory to have some on-site pre-game and post-game coverage, and maybe an exclusive hit from the NBC studio team during the sports report on the local news.
From there, Games 4 through 7 -- under my idea -- would air on NBC, and you have no problem with the Stanley Cup being handed out on cable, even if there is a sweep, and even if you don't let affiliates have a shake at Games 2 and 3. I imagine part of the problem in the past was having VERSUS travel between cities and similarly with NBC, but now that it's NBC, it's the same crew. There's nothing really prohibitive about changing things up like this.
I think the Stanley Cup post-game ceremony is so valuable -- the one thing everyone on Earth agrees is cool about hockey -- that it has to air on broadcast television. While everything may be moving toward cable now, not everything has to be yet. I think the NHL nearly had a huge missed opportunity on Wednesday. The team in the second-largest television market in the United States lifting the Stanley Cup on home ice. Low-rated as this series may be, that moment -- and every Stanley Cup-clinching game -- should be important enough to air on the league's most important partner, and that's NBC.