Wednesday, June 17, 2009

NHL draft guide: how to televise the playoffs

By Rick Morris

Since FDH began co-producing our draft guides with Sportsology and Card Corner Club last year, we have also been serializing the features that will be involved in it. By the end of this week, HOCKEY DRAFTOLOGY 2009 will be available for free download.

Now, we always spice up our draft guides (even our fantasy-oriented ones) with at least some material outside of the core subject. In so doing, we broaden our appeal beyond the hard-core draftniks who most appreciate our work. This piece suggests an idea that ideally would be right under the noses of the NHL powers-that-be: how to leverage the exciting dynamic of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to most effectively build public support for the game in America.

A modest proposal: hockey playoff TV like it’s never been presented before!

No, this is not another rant about the NHL being televised on a network with the national penetration, or lack thereof, of Versus. That would be another piece for another time if everything there was to say had not already been said 1,000 times — because frankly, there’s another issue related to this one that is of more concern and is potentially more easily addressed.

Ever since leaving the ESPN family in 2005, the NHL has placed the bulk of their playoff games in the first two rounds on a premium subscription package that costs their loyal fans more money — and puts the games behind a firewall that casual fans will not choose to access. It is worth noting that they are alone among the four major sports in North America in this regard (although the NBA does put a few games on NBA TV, currently in less homes than the Test Pattern Channel). Few if any observers would dispute that the NHL is the sport most in need of reaching out to casual fans — and few if any would dispute that the passion and action of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are elements that can accomplish this feat.

Now, this column was inspired by memories of the rare occasions back in the day when ESPN would carry a first-round playoff doubleheader on one channel and ESPN2 would carry the night’s other two games. With staggered start times of 7:00 PM EDT on one network and 7:30 PM EDT on the other, fans could experience the nirvana of skipping between the games at intermission — or commercials — and missing a fairly minimal amount of action.

From there, that format germinated into the idea of how to consolidate the action into a single channel, inasmuch as Versus is the single present cable/satellite channel for NHL action and it cannot be assumed that the league’s next TV contract will include two channels worth of action even if Disney gets back in the game. Wouldn’t the league and the sport benefit from a March Madness-type of presentation with their playoff action? Is this presentation possible? We believe that it is, under the following format.

For first-round action with four games in one night, a pregame show should air from 6-7 PM EDT, setting the table for the night’s action and recapping events of the previous day. The first game would start promptly at 7:00 PM EDT, with the next one dropping the puck at 7:25 PM EDT. This would allow for coverage to move fairly seamlessly between games, albeit with fairly minimal intermission analysis from the studio — but that would be the price paid for the frenetic action. The geography of the local markets would determine which game would take priority for the brief moments when the games overlap — and the network would also be free to utilize the split-screen when urgent sequences are occurring simultaneously. The third game would begin at 9:25 PM EDT, hopefully right on the heels of the first game’s conclusion, although admittedly the second game would still be underway — this concession to having some overlap would be necessary, though, in order to keep the evening’s overall conclusion time within some semblance of reason. The fourth game would start at 9:50 PM EDT and the second half of the evening’s action would progress in the same manner. A studio postgame show would follow the conclusion of the last game and ideally air from about 12:15 AM EDT until 1:00 AM EDT assuming the games are all on schedule.

For first-round action with three games in one night, everything would air in the same fashion except for the third game beginning at 9:50 PM EDT so as to decrease the chances of overlap between the early games and the late one. For first-round or second-round action with two games in one night, the format with the 7:00 PM EDT and 7:25 PM EDT start times could be retained if both games are in the Eastern or Central time zones; otherwise, fairly standard doubleheader coverage would air with start times of 7:00 PM EDT and 9:40 PM EDT.

Ideally, a network would air these games with their own broadcast crew instead of subcontracting out to local affiliates like Versus has done, but if a continuation of that arrangement were deemed necessary to make the finances add up for this package to take place, it would be a trade-off that is easily justified. While a number of parties might end up sacrificing financially in the short-term to make this system possible, the buzz that would be generated and the new and curious viewers enticed would surely make this a winner within a few years. There would not be extended commercial breaks available during the three-game and four-game nights, but sponsorships for the evening could be sold off in a number of creative ways. In short, nothing would bring the unparalleled excitement of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the masses like this idea would. Make it happen, NHL!

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