There’s one thing you have to keep in mind when it comes to this public relations debacle surrounding the cancellation of tonight’s viewing party in Tampa for Game 7 between the Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. And that is that the NHL is not the bad guy here. The league is basically taking a bullet for its broadcast partner, NBC Sports.
Think about it. Why would the league want to deter thousands of people from assembling in one place to celebrate their team’s playoff run and create a sense of community among fans that no amount of money can buy, unless it was being forced to do so? The truth is, the NHL would love it, absolutely love it, if every team in the playoffs held public gatherings for each one of their playoff games. It creates a buzz around the team and the product that is immeasurable. The days of Bill Wirtz not putting the Chicago Blackhawks home games on television passed a long time ago.
The league is being made to look like a bunch of bumbling marketers in order to protect the interests of NBC Sports, but when the broadcaster leaned on the league to send the cops to the Lightning’s house party before it even started, the NHL complied. And here’s the other thing. This was not sprung on anyone. When the Lightning planned a Game 7 viewing party after already having one for Game 5, whoever did so knew the team was going against league rules and could be shut down. In fact, the league sent a memo out to the chief marketing officers of each of the playoff-bound teams on April 12 saying teams were only allowed to hold one viewing party per round.
Now if you want to rail against the NHL for having a goofy rule when it comes to viewing parties, then fill your boots. Because when you look at it in a vacuum, it does seem pretty penny-wise and pound-foolish. To be so myopic as to overlook the big picture when it comes to the benefits of viewing parties looks kind of silly. It’s almost like, say, holding a hockey tournament in the fall that nobody really cares about, stacking it with fabricated teams and trotting it out as a viable alternative to the Olympics when the real objective is to pluck the low-hanging fruit in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. Hey, wait a minute…
But the reality is that we don’t live in a vacuum. The reality is that these broadcasters have paid billions of dollars for their TV rights and they want to protect the exclusivity of that asset. It may seem petty to worry about a couple of thousand people watching on a large screen being counted as one or no viewers. But those couple of thousand people matter to the broadcaster, particularly in a market such as Tampa. And there is the principle of the thing as well. In the end, the televising of the game is the broadcaster’s asset and it should have some say about how that asset is distributed. It doesn’t when it comes to bars and the like, but it certainly does when it comes to the people who are supposed to be its partners.
Contrast that with the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, who hold viewing parties for every playoff game, at home and on the road. It costs the team about $70,000 per party with no direct revenues coming out of it, but the benefits to the team are immeasurable. "The NBA has been very supportive," said Dave Haggith, senior director, communications for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment."They love what they're seeing."
In fact, Haggith said the 'Jurassic Park' concept was borne out of the Leafs playoff run in the spring of 2013 when fans began gathering outside Maple Leaf Square to watch the games. And not only does the NBA allow it, the league encourages it. In fact, for the second straight year, the Raptors received the NBA's Team Sponsorship Activation of the Year because of Jurassic Park. It's actually the Ford Fan Zone, hence the sponsorship activation award.
And the benefits to the team are enormous. Photos and footage of the crowds are prominent, thus enhancing the Raptors brand. And part of the reason why the Raptors are such a tough out on home court is fueled by the passion created outside the arena.
But there are some key differences between that and the NHL. First off, American broadcasters don't care that Canadian audiences are watching en masse. And second, there is a slight difference in the U.S. ratings between playoff basketball and hockey.
News of the cancellation of the viewing parties came out amidst reports that both the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues held multiple viewing parties during the Western Conference final. That may very well have been the case. We checked with both teams to confirm that information, but have yet to hear back from them. If that were the case, there’s a chance the NHL didn’t know about it or was not pressured by NBC Sports to do anything about it.
And if you have any doubts as to whether the NHL is taking one on the chin for NBC Sports, consider that thn.com reached out to NBC Sports vice-president, communications Chris McCloskey and was told to speak to NHL group vice-president, communications John Dellapina about it, saying, “this is an NHL policy issue.” When pressed to respond to whether or not this was being driven by NBC Sports based on ratings, he responded, “Not trying to be difficult, Ken, but you should contact (the NHL) as to why they are enforcing their pre-existing policy.”