The signing of a ten year deal with NBC/Versus earlier this year can almost be considered a high watermark for the league. They have fully bounced back from the dark days of the lockout. Much like the MLB's return from the edge was fueled by Mark McGwire, the NHL has been helped by the emergence of Sidney Crosby. Now the league is reaping the rewards in stability with the long term NBC contract.
But this year's NBC schedule shows a continued disturbing trend. NBC continues to highlight roughly the same six teams to get national coverage. This isn't just a complaint from someone whose team rarely gets highlighted. This is a complaint from someone who loves hockey and doesn't want to see them screw up. With a 10-year deal the NHL should consider that they have a period of time to build up the whole league before they start stressing about ratings again.
This offseason is one great example of the dangers of putting all your eggs in one basket.
Not only do you have a completely unknown timeline for the return of Crosby, but the radically changed Flyers. The news about the Flyers being in the Winter Classic was leaked before the team made some wild moves. No one can predict where they are going to be by January, especially with Chris Pronger's health questions.
It's not that the NHL has done anything wrong with making Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin (to a lesser extent) the faces of the league. They are two of the best players in the league and the NHL got lucky to have two great players enter the league at nearly the same time. But now that the league has some stability it's time to rethink the plan for television.
While other leagues certainly try to spotlight their top players, they also do a good job of raising awareness of talented players across the league. In my honest opinion, I wouldn't be surprised if the casual fan who watches hockey struggles to name a single player on even middle of the road teams. The sad thing about that though is that most teams in the league have a marquee player who is fun to watch. Maybe not every game is going to be magic, but there's a chance these guys do something memorable.
The talent level in hockey is probably deeper then it's even been before. There are players who can do absolutely incredible things with the puck. It's almost criminal that so many of these players aren't even a blip on the radar. Most of it has to do with the poor marketing by both the NHL and NBC. The attempts to maximize ratings for NBC means that smaller markets have gone mostly ignored, while Canada has been completely ignored.
There was a table of all possible appearances a team could make on NBC or VS, dependent on NBC's ability to flex games. Three teams are at the top of the list with 17 possible appearances, the Bruins, Red Wings and Rangers. The Bruins are defending champions, and the Red Wings are always a strong team. But the Rangers who barely made the playoffs the last 2 out of 3 years? In comparison, the Kings who were 7th in the West last year and are the #2 media market in the United States have 6 appearances. The Kings last year also had a near identical attendance in comparison to the Rangers too.
There are teams that should be fun to watch next year who will barely make a dent on the national scene. Remember Corey Perry's one man monster derby as he got the Ducks into the playoffs by himself? They are getting 6 appearances. What about Phoenix and Nashville, both young teams who are on the rise? Phoenix has 4, Nashville has 2. So even if a casual fan happened to catch the Nashville - Anaheim series last year and liked what they saw, good luck catching a game featuring either team.
It's not as though these teams don't have stars either. Even if Nashville can't match guys like Perry, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne, they still have great players in Shea Webber and Pekka Rinne. You have Shane Doan and Ray Whitney in Phoenix. These are fun and exciting guys to watch, no matter your level of hockey intelligence.
The league is painting itself into a corner if it continues to allow NBC to run roughshod over the schedule. Even the NFL gives a fair shake to each of it's teams, and most casual fans know where the big stars are. If the NBC keeps acting like only 6 or 7 teams exist, it's going to hurt the league in the long run. But with the 10-year deal in place, now is the time the league should be using to promote other star players around the NHL. In 10 years who knows what will have changed with the league. The problem though is if you have a bunch of casual fans who only care about certain teams/players your going to be in trouble when it comes time to negotiate again.
There's also the chicken and egg argument when it comes to the playoffs. Do some of these teams suffer lower ratings because they are in a smaller market? Or is it because the NHL ignores them 90% of the time, and then wonders why they are struggling? Should Florida after spending a lot of money in free agency trying to shore up the team quickly be looking at a single appearance on NBC/VS?
The NHL is in a position of strength right now and so now is the best time to review what they've been doing. They've gotten two wake up calls this offseason with Crosby and the Flyers change of course. The NHL got lucky that Wayne Gretzky played a long career with few injuries. But take a look around, not just the NHL but in the NFL, NBA and MLB we see players go skyrocketing into fame and burning out even quicker. Players are no longer great for a decade or two at a time. The ball is in the NHL's court, and I'm worried they are about to blow it again.