There's been a ton of spin on why there are back to back games in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 54 years. And the correct answer has nothing to do with the sudden popularity of hockey, the sad state of affairs at NBC or Gary Bettman's suggestion that we (the NHL) thought we would try something new.
The correct answer is Conan O'Brien.
NBC told the NHL last fall that they would not schedule a weeknight NHL playoff game during Conan O'Brien's premiere week on The Tonight Show. The network wants a killer rating this week to generate a ton of publicity for Conan. And the Peacocks want to do as few weeknight games as possible during O'Brien's debut month to let other programming drive sampling to The new Tonight Show. With all of the talk about the value of franchises around here, remember this...The Tonight Show, now in it's 55th year on NBC is the most profitable franchise in the history of broadcasting. It is the crown jewel of NBC. There is no room this week for a triple overtime hockey game that pushes the Tonight Show back to 1AM.
So that created a problem for the NHL. To gain momentum, the league didn't want to bounce back and forth between NBC and Versus too many times during the finals. While the NBC arrangement is a profit sharing that currently returns about $3MM a year to the NHL, it is still crucial in giving the league mass exposure that Versus can only dream about. And while the NHL could not have envisioned the huge increase in viewing and interest it is experiencing this year, the leagued always views these things in a glass half full way.
The league had a couple of options -- start the finals on or after June 6th, shuffle games between NBC and Versus or play a back to back if they wanted two games in a row on NBC.
Well OK. Putting the Finals off until June 6th would have worked if the Conference Finals were compelling and drawn out. This year, they weren't.
So given the choice of a momentum killing 10 day intermission, the NHL decided that playing back to back on the first weekend of The Finals wasn't such a bad thing. Saturday is the worst night of the week for television viewing and NBC has made a habit of burying as many NHL Finals games there as possible. That's the bad news. The good news is that the league was able to get NBC to schedule Game 2 on Sunday night. Sunday is the highest viewing night of the week. The total audience is usually more than twice as large as an average Saturday. It also marked the first NHL Finals game on a Sunday night in many, many years (I can't find the last one but 54 or 55 years would be a good guess) The NHL also got an extra break when the NBA Lakers eliminated Denver on Friday giving the NHL a clean shot at the sports audience.
Don't underestimate how important a Sunday night game will be to the NHL. On Saturday night, the Red Wings & Penguins game did a 1.7 rating (Adults 18-49) and won the night. If the Sunday game holds form and does something north of a 3.0 it will be a huge win for hockey. Now the league goes back into the witness protection program for games 3 and 4 but the resulting buzz for hockey will be very good this year. If the Penguins and Wings stretch to 6 or 7 games, this series could be a seminal event for the NHL.
Why a seminal event? Because the NHL is talking with ESPN about returning the sport to the big tent of cable TV. ESPN wants to take a big leap by having a professional sports championship won on its' network. Every year, ESPN handles all sorts of sports events but when it comes time for the big one, another network, usually a broadcast network, gets the honors. The NHL would benefit greatly from the added exposure that ESPN could provide and my broadcasting friends tell me that the network is more ready to talk then they have been in the last few years. A great Finals this year with a solid Sunday night rating could push the ESPN negotiations over the top.
NBC would like to keep their hands on hockey for at least another year to cross promote the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Beyond that, NBC can take or leave hockey. The NHL would be wise, incredibly wise, to walk out that door and bring the Finals as well as other hockey programming to ESPN. The income to the teams would be better and the exposure would be immeasurably better.
And they will look back at that Sunday night in 2009 as a night when the league proved it could drive a great rating, create interest in the sport and maybe, just maybe, start reestablishing itself as the fourth major sport in the US.
Update Monday 2:45 PM -- The Sunday night game did good but not great ratings. The game averaged a 3.5 Household rating and a 2.0 (Adults 18-49) The game won the night for NBC and won 4 of 6 half hours, only trailing repeats of The Simpsons and Family Guy.