It’s never good when the conversation about a game featuring the NHL’s MVP is tilted toward a disappointing table of what happened on the ice.
Connor McDavid and the Oilers, the last Canadian team in the playoffs, faced elimination heading into Game 6. Given the size of this game, and the fact that it was the only NHL game on the schedule, it made sense if the timing was catering to local audiences and not just local markets. But the start of 10 p.m. (Eastern time), or 8 p.m. local time in Edmonton, didn’t reflect that at all. It was a questionable start time that made the game more difficult to watch anywhere outside the Pacific time zone.
Sundays are the first day of the week when there are a few local starts at 7pm. In the regular season, most games are scheduled earlier in the day. But the playoffs aren’t the regular season, so it’s not an apples-to-apples situation. If anything, scheduling changes in the postseason are meant to increase viewership for each game. This is why games in Dallas and Minnesota started later in the first round—sometimes as close as 8:30 pm local time (with the puck dropping around 8:50), to avoid interference with Eastern Conference games.
So it’s especially strange when it’s a Just Game of the day is not only late for East Coast viewers, but where the game is played – especially on a Sunday night. It wouldn’t be nearly as controversial on a Friday or Saturday night, but a late start on Sunday will hurt viewers, no matter how important the game is. It won’t help attract young fans who can’t stay up on a school night. It won’t work for those who can’t watch a game until 12:30 AM (ET) with work the next morning either. And European markets that might be interested in seeing Leon Draistel, William Carlsson and Matthias Ekholm won’t click at this grand theatre, either.
It’s even more confusing when last week’s 7 p.m. (Eastern time) starts on Saturday. Despite being the only game on the schedule, it wasn’t exactly in place for anyone – not in primetime on the East Coast, or for any team in the market. This game, which was less demanding given where it was in that series, could easily have catered to local markets with slots series decider games being applied more nationally.
Promise scheduling is nothing new in the NHL. It’s the theme of the regular season, that games are stacked on certain days, often at the exact same time, making it impossible to increase viewership. Friday nights don’t usually have much action, and neither do Mondays. Conversely, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays tend to be packed with games.
He’s not a bewildering first choice this postseason, either. Just look at the Maple Leafs, one of the biggest draws for Canadian viewers, with no game scheduled for Saturday night. This did no favors for their television partner, Sportsnet.
In a way, the questionable timing of Game 6 between the Golden Knights and Oilers par for the course. But the expectation that the league will err on the schedule is not warranted. Instead, it’s another missed opportunity to grow the game.
So why was this game decided upon when it was?
It likely has something to do with the other ESPN Sunday programming that took priority. The NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 7 kicked off at 3:30 PM (ET) between the Celtics and 76ers. Then there was their weekly Sunday Night Baseball programming at 7 p.m. (ET). The fact that it was a lopsided game between the Cardinals and the Red Sox early in the season doesn’t really matter; ESPN has a contract with MLB, and that tends to draw more viewers than the NHL – even a game of high importance.
Baseball was the priority, which is why they didn’t get to another station at 10pm (ET) when it was late. There was a split screen for a few minutes that left hockey and baseball fans frustrated.
For hockey fans, it sells a potential elimination game featuring McDavid and Draisaitl, regardless of the opponent. Taking on Jack Eshel, Mark Stone, and an attention-grabbing team like the Golden Knights makes it all the more interesting, especially when you consider how exciting this series is between explosions, close games, skillful plays, and a slick back-and-forth.
But this may not sell well to a national audience unless they are really into hockey. It does not help the networks in the US that it was a match with a Canadian team. What makes matters worse is that McDavid and Draisaitl’s star power doesn’t go beyond ice, especially in the United States. They’re not a duo like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski who bring it onto the field with elite play and out with memorable characters who build viewership. Which is part of the reason this game show schedule hasn’t changed — the viewership won’t be competing, regardless.
By playing this game at 10 p.m. (ET), ESPN gets its full day of programming between the NBA, MLB, and NHL playoffs in slots that reflect its priority. Could ESPN have dumped this game earlier, perhaps in a true Eastern prime time slot, on ESPN 2? Sure, of course, they could have. But why would they compete with themselves and take the ratings away from their other shows? Why would they take advantage of the opportunity for extended live content on their base station?
Why don’t you hand the game over to Turner then?
Why He was they? Then the door opens to last Grid competing with stacked slate. It’s not good for work at the end of the day, and that’s what this is all about. The NHL has an agreement with ESPN, and that doesn’t change. Prices do not change if viewership changes. That’s why it doesn’t really matter which networks the third round in the East has two teams from small markets either. Nothing has changed for them, and it probably won’t be a priority unless big US markets like New York, Boston, Chicago or Detroit get involved.
While many have called for this deal between the NHL and ESPN due to the network’s arrival, the truth is that they will never be the priority – not NFL, NBA, MLB, or even NCAA football. The bright side is the exposure for being on the ESPN networks, but the downsides are also evident. The only way the league can fight back is to have some kind of protection in their contracts that allows for more influence over scheduling – or to generate more interest in hockey in general that fans want to watch whenever that happens. The former can’t happen because the deal has already been done, and the latter is something they consistently fail to do.
The league will probably tell you that the best way to market the game and attract new fans is to let the game speak for itself, especially when elite players take off (you’d think that would be the reason for their naked marketing attempts, at least). If that’s the case, it’s very hard when McDavid’s greatest NHL player and perhaps one of the greatest playoff players in recent history is in Draisaitl at such a bad time for a national audience. If it’s a small number of viewers, how is this going to generate interest? That’s why there had to be a more concerted effort to market the game faster and more creatively.
While McDavid and the Oilers failed in the end, the on-ice action did its part to keep the Nationals audience on edge until the last minute of the high-stakes game. However, the league didn’t get the memo and continued to go its own way when it came to growing the game.
(Photo by Connor McDavid watches as the Golden Knights celebrate their Game 6 victory: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
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