Welcome to Part I of a long article I wrote about the Devils history, attendance, and new supporters section. This wasn't originally planned on being included in the series, but when I saw a piece written on Puck Daddy the other day I felt like I had to start off by mentioning it. Part I is the most broad of the series and is applicable for all the NHL teams. It won't address the Devils as much as the pieces that will follow.
Recently Puck Daddy lead editor and noted Devils fan Greg Wyshynski posted the following quote from Gary Bettman about the team selection process for the Winter Classic:
"An important element of doing the Winter Classic is obviously the national TV ratings, so we have to be comfortable that whatever matchup we’re going to do will do a good number."
As he normally does, Wyshynski jokingly responded by following the quote with his own analysis of,
"So get ready for "HBO 24/7 Penguins/Flyers: Road to The Winter Classic at Target Field."
As funny as that quote may be, we as Devils fans might have a hard time laughing because at this point we honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it actually happened. We’re not wrong to think this way either. In fact there are about 22 other NHL teams who probably agree and feel as hopeless as us of ever receiving a Winter Classic. Gary Bettman said himself that national TV ratings are what matters, so we can rule out Canadian teams whose numbers don’t count, as well as other subpar U.S. NHL markets.
But is there room in a Winter Classic for a medium popularity NHL team? The Classic history so far shows no. And is the Winter Classic really the only way that Bettman and NBC screw over the vast majority of fans in the name of money and misguided intentions?
Have you ever been excited to watch the "NHL on NBC Game of The Week" on a Sunday? Maybe you have Versus and NHL Network or maybe you don’t. Either way, any hockey fan would agree that it’s nice to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and watch two teams you may not normally get to see battle it out to the call of Doc Emerick on a channel that almost everyone has access to.
Have you ever looked at the schedule for "NHL on NBC Game of The Week" and thought that you were noticing a trend? Don’t worry, you’re not imagining things, you just haven’t heard the news that the "NHL on NBC Game of The Week" is just another way of saying "NHL on NBC: We Only Ever Show Games Featuring Teams From These Few U.S. Cities."
Congratulations to the fans of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, and Washington. These fans have surely already noticed that their teams pop up as a "Game of The Week" more frequently than others. In fact, no team will be broadcast on NBC unless it playing against one of those 7 teams. And even to be on the list of teams "privileged" enough to play one of these teams on NBC is a rarity. Many teams are never featured at all, and most of the time the "Game of The Week" is just a combination of the 7 "chosen" teams anyway.
So why is this, you ask? And why has it always been the same 7 teams featured on NBC each year? It’s because ever since the NHL partnered with NBC they’ve never shied away from making it completely obvious that the "Game of The Week" is all about ratings possibilities. The NHL is trying to grow its’ profile, and as part of this decision they’ve decided that having games aired nationally is worth giving NBC the exclusive right to dictate which teams get featured, which do not, and the frequency.
We can’t pretend to be surprised that the major reasoning behind this is the money. But we shouldn’t forget that NBC is a massive corporation much more concerned with its’ bottom line than actually growing the sport of hockey. Viewers in Canada are automatically screwed because they do not factor into viewership ratings, so it’s a no-brainer that all 7 of these teams come from big U.S. cities and have been (with exception to the Rangers) among the top NHL teams in recent seasons.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you watch the NBA, NFL, MLB, or College Football you know that all sports pretty much do the same thing. There’s occasionally some room for fluctuation, but in the case of primetime space on ESPN or Sunday/Monday Night Football, most of the participant teams have been decided based on rivalry projections and skill/popularity before the season even begins.
But even if the NHL says "but all the other leagues are doing it", they’d still be leaving out the fact that no other league excludes as high a percentage of their member teams as the NHL. This year alone one of the most prized spots on TV, Monday Night Football, will feature 24 out of 32 different NFL teams. When you compare this with the idea that NBC will only show games involving at least one of 7 NHL teams, you just can’t help but wonder whether the NHL is doing a great job in exposing our sport nationally or instead giving casual fans the impression that the entire NHL consists of only 7 teams all of which are on the East coast. In other words, is the NHL allowing themselves to be NBC’s b****?
Is anyone surprised to think that the Winter Classic has, besides Buffalo once, only ever featured members of the chosen 7? Yet this fact bothers me even more. Does the NHL really think that fans from other teams simply don’t care? Is it too farfetched to think that two other teams selling 40,000 seats and having solid TV ratings is still possible for a potentially once in a lifetime event like this? Aren’t hockey fans and sports fans in general attending/viewing the games anyway even if they don’t root for the teams being featured?
The truth is that the variables used by the NHL and NBC to determine who gets televised on NBC/Versus or who gets showcased in the Winter Classic are incredibly flawed. And we don’t have to look very far to see an easy example of why. It’s well known that despite being a consistently great team, the Devils normally finish in the lower 10 of NHL teams in terms of average home attendance. Lesser known is the fact that the Devils consistently finish around the top 5 of NHL teams in terms of average road attendance. It’s not just a weird thing that’s happened once, and the league data proves that for many years in a row the Devils either make for exciting games for opposing fans to watch, or that Devils fans travel well and are located all throughout the country.
Average road attendance aside, maybe the Devils don’t get included because home attendance is what matters. So let’s look at some more facts on a chosen team like the Pittsburgh Penguins before jumping to conclusions. The statistics show that Pittsburgh averages less than 3,000 more fans at home than the Devils do, and their average road attendance is typically within a few hundred fans of ours. Furthermore we know that the Devils share a problem (NYR, Philly) that no other teams in the league are faced with; we’re located within a 90 minute drive of both the Flyers and Rangers. Knowing this we can assume our home numbers are hurt by losing some North Jersey fans to NYR and South Jersey fans to Philly.
Considering all of this and how small of a difference the home attendance numbers are, how does the league justify giving Pittsburgh massive NBC coverage and inclusion in two Winter Classics so far?
The fact is that if a team like the Devils were involved in the Winter Classic it would still sell out and would still have great TV ratings. When you realize that Pittsburgh has a bigger population and cheaper ticket prices to help them out, a 3,000 difference in average home attendance seems very negligible. The strong road average attendance ratings show that the Devils have fans all over who will either tune in on TV or travel back home to see an amazing game. It doesn’t even need to be the nearby Flyers or Rangers, but match up the Devils against any of the teams in the Atlantic division and it will still sell out.
Finally, we’d be ignorant to think that the Devils are the only team struggling through this situation, but they’re the easiest team for me to reference and easily illuminate the hypocrisy of NHL/NBC decisions. The sheer amount of teams ignored by the NHL and NBC is probably exactly why Wyshynski made his sarcastic remarks to begin with. The "NHL Game of The Week on NBC" schedule for the 2011-2012 season is linked below. The first featured game of the year is this week and the continued requirement that at least one "chosen 7" team be included in every broadcast is still there, and ultimately demonstrates that there’s no reason for fans of the 23 other teams to believe that anything will be changing anytime soon. I’m not holding my breath.
So how long did we sign that new contract with NBC for again?
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