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Can NHL rebound from lockout with fans, television audiences?

A cast of sports media experts weighs in on the impact of the NHL lockout on television, and how to get people back with the shortened season.

Patrick McDermott

We can all pretty much agree that the 2012 (and part of 2013) NHL lockout was colossally stupid, didn't have to last as long as it did (if at all) and has cost the league untold amounts of money and goodwill from the public.

Another factor to acknowledge is the impact the lockout has had on the league's television prospects, which were looking -- to use a favorite phrase from the lockout -- cautiously optimistic heading into what would've been the 2012-13 season.

All is not lost, I don't think. They saved part of the season, and hockey will be played. So, what does the league do to make up for all this? I wrangled together a motley crew of seven people I'd call "sports media experts" to answer some of the tough questions, and maybe come up with solutions to the NHL's possible problems with their television coverage.


The Panel:

Neil Best, Newsday
Ken Fang, Fang's Bites
Bill Hanstock, SB Nation, Progressive Boink
Matt Yoder, Awful Announcing
Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated
Bruce Dowbiggin, The Globe & Mail
Chris Botta, Sports Business Journal

An easy question to start us off: How much damage has the NHL done to itself on television with this third lockout in 18 years?

Neil Best: I think it has done tremendous damage. Fans can understand and live with the occasional self-destructive labor dispute, but at some point they inevitably must ask the question: If you guys don't care about actually playing games, why are we supposed to care about them?!

Ken Fang: This is pretty extensive damage. With no NHL games on TV, the league has been off people's radar. Hardcore fans have missed the game, but any casual fans the game might have picked up with last year's great postseason have been lost. And with the NHL Winter Classic canceled, HBO's 24/7 was not on the air helping to promote the New Year's Day game at the Big House in Michigan. This was all damaging to a game that needs as much promotion as possible. This lockout has certainly done a lot of hurt to a great game.

Bill Hanstock: Honestly, I think the lockout doesn't do nearly as much damage to the NHL, TV-wise, as does the refusal of ESPN and other networks to cover hockey in any meaningful way. Hockey fans (particularly Canadian hockey fans) will watch hockey when it's on, regardless of where it's airing or for how long it's locked out. Truly casual TV viewers likely aren't super-aware of the lockout anyway, and they're the fickle fans who will just watch it when it's on anyway and not really hold a grudge. That's my take, anyway.

Matt Yoder: Any extended lockout will always do some damage. It's one thing for the NBA to lose a handful of games and start on Christmas Day as they did in 2011, which is when everyone starts paying attention to the league in the first place. It's quite another to cancel an All-Star Game and lose half a season, or maybe even another full season and a second in less than a decade.

That said, the NHL is in an interesting position with their NBC contract. The league doesn't get mainstream attention from ESPN to begin with, so the amount of casual fans who will feel turned off by the lockout will be minimal compared to an NFL or NBA lockout. Moreover, the fans that watch the league on NBC and NBCSN in the States are very likely hardcore hockey fans and the most likely to stay no matter what happens. Of course, all this depends on how reasonably quickly the NHL can return to hockey. As long as the league doesn't cannibalize itself (no guarantee), the damage should be relatively controllable.

Richard Deitsch: In the short term, I don't think much. Conventional wisdom says that the league will lose audience but the truth is, the opposite is often the case. The diehard fans will return and I think there will be a significant curiosity factor among casual NHL fans.

I think the ratings will rise compared to last year's season start. My evidence; The NBA's lockout-shortened season produced excellent ratings. But the long-term impact on television is much tougher to figure out. How many potential fans have they lost by not having the product? How does the lockout impact future TV negotiations? These are the unknowns.

Bruce Dowbiggin: In Canada, not that much yet. They may cost themselves a little in next network deal, and they may bump the whole process back a year, meaning no new money for a year. In the USA it's set the NHL back a decade or more with sponsors and networks. They're seen like the scorpion in the tale of the frog and scorpion. It's in their nature to do these destructive things. As Mike Singletary said, "Can't win with 'em. Can't do to."'

Chris Botta: Regionally, the damage will be severe in many markets. A large sector of the league's fanbase will not be as interested in a 48-game regular season. Yes, we went through this in 1995, but that was another era and it was merely the first of now three lengthy lockouts. In the non-hockey hotbeds, ratings will be even lower than usual.

Nationally, the news won't be as bad. NBC and NBCSN may see a slight drop in the middle of an abbreviated regular season, but let's face it: the ratings have rarely been great. The playoffs will still do well in the big markets and okay in the playoffs. More than any other year, the NHL could use a Stanley Cup with some jam: Crosby and Malkin against the Blackhawks would work, for example.

How would you program the opening day/night of the NHL season? You can use NBC and/or NBC Sports Network.

NB: Hmm, well, I think I would attempt something like what the NBA did on Christmas Day after their lockout last season, or actually what they do on Christmas Day every year. Put a super-marquee matchup on NBC in midafternoon on a Saturday and have one NBCSN game before it and two after it, all with marquee franchises.

KF: If the league comes back on Saturday, January 19, luckily the NFL playoffs would be in their Conference Championships and thus, the NHL can avoid being buried by football the following day.

For NBC/NBC Sports Network, it should do an all day event similar to its annual Hockey Day in America. Do a celebration of game's return and have host Liam McHugh live from New York's Central Park or Times Square in cooperation with the NHL, bringing the game closer to fans. In addition, NBC and the NHL should take a page from the old NBA on CBS strategy.

Have an East-West doubleheader for the season openers. Schedule a game at noon ET in either Boston, New York or Chicago, cities that have strong NHL fanbases and would most likely sell out. Then the late afternoon game at 3 p.m. ET should be in Los Angeles where the Kings will raise their Stanley Cup banner. Have Kings season ticket holder Al Michaels host the game from the Staples Center for NBC.

For NBC Sports Network, have games at 7 p.m. and at 10 p.m. even if it's a simulcast of the CBC Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader. As long as the NBC Sports Group makes this an all-day affair, this would help for the NHL to own its season opening Saturday with college basketball and the Australian Open as competition.

BH: My schedule:
10 a.m. - 2 p.m.: Don Cherry yells about ungrateful non-Canadian hockey players
2 p.m. - 4 p.m.: Greatest Stanley Cup moments
4 p.m. - 7 p.m.: Greatest fights
8 p.m. - midnight: Rangers vs. Devils

5 p.m. - 8 p.m.: Bruins vs. Flyers
8 p.m. - 11 p.m.: Kings vs. Red Wings

MY: If I'm NBC, I start the season on a Saturday with a tripleheader and deliver the best games and biggest stars possible. Unfortunately, you've already cost yourself major opportunities in losing both the Winter Classic outdoor spectacle and the coveted New Year's Day slot, but that doesn't mean you have to totally give up a national showcase. I'd start with Penguins at Rangers from MSG on NBC at 4 PM ET followed by Red Wings at Blackhawks and then Canucks at Kings on NBC Sports Network. Those are all games any hockey fan can sink their teeth into.

RD: I'd market the bloody hell out of opening night on every conceivable NBC property. Flood the zone and make the day/night a celebration. If the schedule-makers were smart, they'd make every game on opening night a rivalry game and build the programming that way.

BD: I'd let a fan shoot on a goalie with no pads and have dunk tank on the mezzanine for the fans to take shots at the owner. What can they do? They have to get the anger out of the way soon as possible so venting is a good idea. I'd turn the final 8 games of season into a round-robin tournament within each division. Two teams get playoff spots and two wildcards from each conference. March/ April madness.

CB: Quality over quantity. Give me two good games, say Flyers-Penguins and Red Wings-Blackhawks, over a four-game stunt that promises something corny like re-igniting our love for the game. An excellent studio show that engages fans for an hour before, in-between and after would not hurt. Otherwise, don't try too hard. The damage is done. The best thing the NHL can do for its fans is not an apologetic ad campaign or placing Thank you, Fans on the ice, but to present the best possible product. Having a week-long training camp and playing a cramped schedule is not putting your best foot forward.

Is there something to the theory that the NHL starting their season in the middle of January might not be all that bad, given that TV ratings and especially attendance in the United States almost always improves once the calendar turns over to the new year?

NB: I'd buy that if it were not for the aforementioned trend of all these labor stoppages in recent times. Yes, a shorter season starting in January actually is kind of cool, especially for the U.S. markets, but the larger problem remains that this stuff happens way too often.

KF: There will be a hit at first. In cities where the NHL is not as strong, there will be attendance and ratings hits. But in cities like Boston, Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago, the fans will be back. And if the postseason is as exciting as last year's, then the lockout will be forgotten.

BH: I think -- and I have said this since the lockout canceled its first round of games -- they should have a 10-game regular season and then immediately hit the playoffs. How awesome would that be? Pretty awesome, obviously.

MY: In the big picture, a January start wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to the NHL. We all know the NHL regular season is too long and meaningless as it is so if anything, the value of those remaining games should go up. The problem for the league is the good will lost with fans and tarnished reputation by doing everything they can to bury the sport in America and make it as nationally relevant as poker and the Crossfit Games.

RD: I'm buying, but only to a limited extent. The NFL consumes everything in January but the freshness of a hockey return would help, in my opinion, in February, one of the deadest times in the sports calendar. I can't speak on attendance given I don't cover the sport regularly but logic states that in some towns, hockey will be the No. 1 game in town come February and March.

BD: They have the meat of the year ahead, but I think the casual American fan has ceased to take them seriously. May take years to rebuild trust, maybe never. As above, there only way to find out how much damage is to start the season and start reaching out-- something the NHL should have been doing already. As I say, these guys are the kings of self delusion.

CB: There may be, but then there's the counter-argument that the NHL continues to destroy the meaningfulness of an 82-game season by presenting a 48-game season and saying, "Hey, look how great this is! Every game is going to count sooooo much!" If we're talking only about TV, as Puck the Media does so well, then sure -- good theory. But the NHL has to be thinking about more than TV, because the ratings in the U. S. are not good, have almost never been good and -- after espcially after the circus of the last six months -- likely won't be good for another long while.

Should the NHL, as has been suggested, make their pay-per-view/subscription services (Center Ice/GameCenter Live) available at a discount or even free of charge for the season?

NB: You mean for just this season or forever? It's fine for this season. Not sure of the economic sense of that forever, though. Casual fans won't watch those services, and avid fans no longer would be paying for something they value enough to pay for it, so it seems like a lose-lose.

KF: Yes, it should be discounted. I don't think the NHL will make it free, but at least make it 50% off for the season since we're probably going to have a reduced schedule. There's no way it should be full price. If it is, fans should not purchase the out-of-market packages.

BH: Yes, of course they should. Is ... would they seriously not do that?

MY: If you're the NHL, you have to grant fans some sort of peace offering for the incredible loyalty that should have been lost long ago. Seriously, have any sport's fans been treated worse than the NHL's? It's almost unfathomable in modern day sports fandom. A discount to those subscription services is the absolute least the NHL can do for its fans. Free giveaways, jerseys, tickets, heck, even a spot on the bench should be offered as a plea for forgiveness.

RD: Absolutely. This is a no-brainer. They should go free for the first week and then a discounted rate for the season.

BD: It's a nice idea but they have to get revenue from somewhere for this year. Maybe allow free digital packages to goose that part of the business.

CB: After I received a note from a reader on Twitter suggesting something like that, I recommended that the NHL offer its shortened regular season for $5 to everyone who takes the time to sign up for it. Seriously, what would the regular value be now for an asterisk season, Steve -- $24.95? The league would be making a decent gesture to fans and would have the contact info of everyone who still wanted to watch its games after the third owners' lockout in less than 20 years. Now, do I think the league will do it? No. There will be a deep discount, but not deep enough.

Finally, if you had one original idea that could help win the NHL back some fans through the medium of television, what would it be? (i.e. change in broadcast policy, gimmicks, etc.)

NB: Wow, I've been thinking about this sort of thing since I was in high school in the late 1970s telling people my career aspiration was to be president of the NHL. I wish I'd have thought of HDTV, because that helps, obviously. This isn't a TV thing, it's a hockey thing, but can we please shrink the damn goalie equipment once and for all? Those guys look comical with their current suits of armor, and it is making it too difficult to score!

TV-wise, um, man, I don't know. How about having a peppy bald Canadians stand between the benches sharing observations from ice level? Oh, wait ... maybe that's not original. Man, I don't know. This whole hockey/TV conundrum has been going on forever and I don't have anything brilliant to say about it.

KF: I would do national doubleheaders throughout the season. NBC should air two games a week on Sunday. NBC Sports Network should have doubleheaders anyway and it would behoove them to institute them for every night of its contract in 2013. And NHL Network should do the same.

BH: It really all starts with everyone treating hockey as a major sport, which it is. It needs to start from the top down. With NBCSN, ESPN, and other networks covering even MMA now and round-the-clock sports coverage on a ton of stations, it's inexcusable that hockey is the sports that gets the short end of the ... ugh, stick, I guess. Pun wasn't intended; sorry.

But treating hockey with the respect it deserves is the biggest piece of the puzzle. Other than that, I'm not sure. You can't make the sport more bloodthirsty or anything. It's already more exciting than football and basketball. If there's any way to bridge the gap between the increasing number of casual soccer fans and hockey, that seems to me a great place to start.

tl;dr: no idea just bring back hockey already

MY: One original idea. Hmm... how about getting rid of Gary Bettman and every owner that is behind this mess? Really, the saddest element about the NHL Lockout is the sport was doing so well. The growth shown since 2004 has truly been impressive as the NHL has made a home on NBC, playoff games were being shown nationally across a variety of networks last season, and more fans were tuning in. The only change the NHL needs to make is to rid themselves of the penny pinching greed that puts fans last and is willing to sacrifice entire seasons seemingly for fun.

RD: Zamboni-cam, and celebrity Zamboni drivers during intermissions!

BD: As above, a pre-playoff play-in tournament in every division. Fire Bettman, too. He's made the brand toxic. Give fans and sponsors a fresh start.

CB: Sorry, but there isn't a magic bullet, Steve. As a former PR person, I was very pro-access. With the approval (after I explained the reasons for it) of the GMs, coaches and players with the Islanders, I was all for putting mics and cameras just about everywhere. Rick DiPietro agreed to my request to be interviewed after the first period of a game he was playing -- a first, according to the producer that night. Access promotes your team, it does right by the fans, but it won't move ratings up one percentage point.

The game looks good in HD. The players, as long as out-of-touch coaches don't get in their way, are accessible and many are strong interviews. The broadcasters are good, although I'd like to see more people get more work (two of my hires at the Islanders, John Wiedeman of the Blackhawks and Steve Mears of the Penguins, for example) instead of the same core getting the bulk of it. Production is excellent almost across-the-board. But the bottom line is that the broadcasts don't have to be better -- the LEAGUE does.

Many thanks to all of our experts for participating.