Saturday, May 02, 2009

A (horse)fly in the ointment?

Much has been made [David Shoalts, The Globe and Mail] of this afternoon's upcoming Game I tilt between Alexander Ovechkin's Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins as a ready-made marketer's dream for the NHL. Hopes are high, and many seem to feel that this kind of matchup between two of the league's brightest stars could be a breakthrough moment for hockey in the U.S. There are some aspects that favour that idea, as both stars toil in reasonably large media markets where there isn't much else going on at the moment; both cities have atrocious baseball teams and Washington's NBA team didn't make the playoffs, while Pittsburgh lacks an NBA team completely and Pennsylvania's lone NBA team was just eliminated [Howard Beck, The New York Times]. If this series is going to draw in the viewers, though, it will have to start with a strong first game. Fortunately for the NHL, they've been able to get this game off of the obscurity of Versus and onto a major network, NBC. Unfortunately, scheduling concerns might just ruin the parade and turn the marketing dream into a nightmare scenario.

You see, the Pittsburgh - Washington game is set to start at 1 p.m. today. That's a little earlier than most NHL games, but not a huge problem. What is a problem is what's scheduled for the next block, though. At 4 p.m., NBC is set to air the Kentucky Derby pre-race show, leading up to the race itself at 5 p.m. Remember what happened the last time [Eric McErlain, Off Wing Opinion] a playoff game in overtime on NBC conflicted with a major pre-race show? That's right, NBC decided to abandon the Ottawa Senators - Buffalo Sabres game in the middle to switch over to their coverage of the Preakness Stakes (which apparently drew more viewers than the hockey game!). Now, the Preakness is important, but it doesn't quite have the cachet of the Kentucky Derby. If the network's willing to drop the playoffs for the Preakness, surely they'd do the same for the Derby?

Fortunately, the parties involved appear to have learned a bit from the last go-round. Greg Wyshynski reports over at Puck Daddy that the network has made contingency plans in advance. They've committed to showing the first overtime period on the main network (which would likely cut into the pre-race show), but then switching to the Derby while sending the NHL game to Versus for a second overtime and beyond if necessary. Obviously, this isn't an ideal situation, but it's the best hockey fans could hope for given the circumstances; it would be ratings suicide for NBC to continue showing hockey and miss the Derby itself, and they may even take a ratings bath by showing the first period of overtime hockey instead of the pre-race show. At least this time around there is a contingency plan that's been made public, and that's certainly an improvement.

Still, a switch to Versus would alienate some viewers who don't have the channel or can't find it and certainly wouldn't help the NHL's efforts to rebuild its major-league image. You can bet that both the league and network executives will be fervently praying for a short game this afternoon. It's the playoffs, though, so anything can happen, and the first clash between Alexander the Great and Sid the Kid may well be relegated to the obscurity of the bull-riding and fishing network in favour of some horses running around a track. If that happens, it will only reinforce hockey's minor-league status in the States, and the series Bettman and co. had hoped would save their image may wind up driving yet another nail into it.


  1. Knowing Bettman's luck, this will be the longest overtime game ever.

  2. It could well be. The teams are reasonably even, and Pittsburgh's been in some long overtime games before. The thing is, I'm not sure how avoidable this was given the current TV situation; the NHL has to bend over backwards to accomodate NBC at the moment, so that necessitates a Saturday afternoon game, and they couldn't really start any earlier than 1. Bettman's mismanagement got them to this point, but I don't know if he could do much else at the moment. The alternative of showing the whole game on Versus would be much worse.