NHL, NBC Fail Local Fans

NBC ended what had become a tradition for many teams during Stanley Cup road games, hosting a viewing party at the team’s arena, when it prohibited Detroit from holding one during Game Six of the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. NBC didn’t comment, but its clearly an attempt to protect its ratings, and the NHL did little – and probably could do little to stop it.

It’s a slap in the face to some of the sports most loyal fans, the same fans that the NHL needs to help revive the sport. Yet another example of why the NHL should not put itself at the mercy of a broadcast partner who does not pay a significant rights fee. The network puts its own interest before that of the league and the league receives essentially nothing in return – unless you count poor marketing and harmful schedule changes.

While 20,000 fans on this one night may not sound substantial, it adds up. What about the 20,000-plus that Pittsburgh would host during the deciding Game 7? NBC probably has to cancel that as well. This mentality is what can damage the league’s repair process. Look at this from a business perspective, customers are king, the lifeblood that drives the business. In sports you need to develop a relationship so they come back when the team is not in the Stanley Cup, when the team is not winning, and so they watch NBC when the team is not playing. Ruining this night – and potentially more if they repeat this – leads to losing customers.

NBC made a short sighted decision. Instead of focusing on ratings in the Detroit market, they should have insisted on inserting themselves into the in-arena telecast. Perhaps employ local ad-sales to sell against the in-arena screen, or insist on promotional activity that benefits the network and the league. They had an opportunity to get access to the most passionate hockey fans in the country in a moment when they would be highly engaged, a great target market if I’ve ever seen one with many opportunities to benefit from it, and NBC found a way to ruin it.

And for what? Will these viewers effect the Nielsen ratings? What if they went to local bars instead, where the Nielsen system is ineffective at tracking the number of users anyway? They lose the ratings impact.

Hockey needs to focus on grassroots, bottom-up marketing. While NBC was at fault here, the league has to stop allowing league partners who provide little or no value to the league from harming fan relationships. Its time to move past this theory that the NHL needs broadcast television. What they need more of is lessons on customer service and fan experience.

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