The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs marked the first time in NHL history that the entire postseason was televised nationally in the U.S. Between NBC, the NBC Sports Network, CNBC and NHL Network, every game of every series was given exposure.
"What a novel idea: Put every game on national television," quipped John Collins, COO of the NHL and a driving force behind its television inroads.
To understand how far the league's come as far as fan access to televised games, one only has to survey the landscape from two years ago. According to Collins, 40 percent of the games in the first two rounds of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs weren't nationally televised.
Today, the NHL can boast that 60 million fans tuned in around North America for Round 1 of the playoffs; that the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers had a larger audience for Game 2 of their semifinal than there was for any Game 7 in the first round or any Flyers/Penguins game; and that the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues are establishing benchmarks on CNBC despite a Game 2 blowout.
We spoke with Collins at length about the NHL's ratings this postseason, and how they might be affected by a non-traditional market pushing for the Cup out of the West; the marketing of the game; and plenty about the 2013 Winter Classic. Among the revelations:
• The advertising market for two months of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is "significantly more than the entire regular season in value."
• That use of the NHL Network in the first round had its benefits, but ultimately didn't offer satisfactory access to some playoff series for viewers, based on network availability.
• Why GameCenter Live wasn't available for the playoffs.
• Finally, news on when Winter Classic tickets will be available and how many might be available.
Q. As far as getting every game televised: Was that a demand in the new TV deal with NBC or something they guaranteed on their end when you re-upped?
COLLINS: We spent a lot of time looking at how we were going to make the business better and ultimately, when we got to the new agreement, what we needed from our partner. From a brand standpoint, and from the ability to convert casual sports fans and get them into hockey, we looked at the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the crown jewel of that brand strategy.
We did a significant analysis with Group M, probably the biggest advertising buyer of sports in the U.S., and asked them to take a look and model out for us [what would happen] if we had every Stanley Cup Playoff game televised with pretty good distribution and reasonable ratings. What would that advertising market be worth? Frankly, it turned out to be significantly more than the entire regular season in value.
For the casual sports fan, there was no reason not to watch. They hadn't rejected hockey. They looked at the Stanley Cup, as a brand equity, on the same level as the World Series and the Super Bowl. The biggest reason they weren't watching was that they just didn't intersect with it. Once they found it, or were presented with it, they found a lot of things that they liked. When we took it a step further and exposed them to programs like "24/7" and really exposed them, they became fans.
Having every game on the air was one of the things we had on the table to make the relationship bigger and better for both sides.
Q. Not every game in the first round was on an NBC network — some were on NHL Network, and in the case of the Devils and Panthers Game 7 it started on NHLN and then finished on NBCSN. Was that something out of necessity or by design to have NHLN in the playoff mix?
COLLINS: We only launched that in the U.S. five years ago, and it's up to 43 million homes, but that's not good enough. We want to have it fully distributed. Having the games on was good for the NHL Network as far as brand recognition and advertising.
But at the end of the day, it's 43 million homes. This is the first year of a 10-year relationship with NBC. I don't think we'll need all 10 years to blow this thing out and reach its full potential, and we're off to a good start.
The ratings have been good so far, and in some cases record-setting in the first round on local levels. But in the second round, in the Western Conference, you have Nashville, Phoenix, St. Louis and a crowded Los Angeles market alive. No Chicago. No Detroit. Is this a cause for concern from a ratings perspective?
There are a lot of ways to measure success. Ratings are one of them. But they're not the only one. If you were looking at the ratings for any sport, including for our friends at the NFL, you'd root for a Chicago or a New York or a Boston or an L.A. every year. But that's not how it works.
In the NHL, I think we're getting to a point where we can stop referring to our success from a television standpoint as only being driven by the Original Six. We had record ratings last year in the Stanley Cup Final that included a Canadian team, so I think that put to myth that we needed two big U.S. markets to drive a rating.
I think there are some great stories happening around the league. This idea of non-traditional hockey markets … the beauty of being able to see every game on a national basis is that you see the passion that exists in Nashville and St. Louis and in Phoenix, where the whiteout is back. That can capture the sports fan's imagination as much as an Original Six team can with its tradition.
On the digital side, NHL.com's offered up some great coverage, but the one complaint I keep hearing from fans was about GameCenter Live being blacked out for the playoffs, which drives online viewers to pirated streams and the like. Why wasn't it available?
That's an industry problem. The games that are streamed are the NBC broadcast games, in partnership with Verizon. The cable games aren't streamed because of the standard in the whole cable operator affiliate deals in which a lot of the stuff hasn't been authenticated, and there are exclusivity agreements in the affiliate deals. That's why those games aren't being streamed. Hopefully we get those things worked out with the NBC guys next year.
During the first round, you did an interview with the Globe & Mail that got some attention, saying that NHL sponsors were weary about the violence we saw at the start of the playoffs. Is that still the case for sponsors, or have they calmed down as the rough stuff has leveled off?
I was talking very broadly about the NHL brand. When I spoke with Bruce Dowbiggin, the Raffi Torres thing hadn't happened at that point. There really wasn't any conversation going on with the sponsors [at that point]. There were in previous moments — some of that stuff was documented a year ago. All I was saying is that we have an obligation when people are paying a lot of money to associate with our brand to be clear about what we do and what we're going to do for issues like player safety.
One thing the sponsors must enjoy are the number of tent-pole events the NHL has developed throughout the year. I've likened it to WWE pay-per-views in the past: Seemingly every month there's an event that you guys can market, be it the draft or the Winter Classic or even that post-Thanksgiving hockey day. How has that plan worked out?
Well, the only think I object to is the WWE reference.
I think that's what we're trying to do. That's how we look at our year, lay it out to our business partners. It's the way we talk about what we're going to do, and it's what we ask them to get behind. We are going to create these spikes in interest, these calendar events … it's not like we make them up. OK, some of them we do. But it follows the flow of the hockey calendar. What we've been doing with more discipline than we have in the past is to focus all of our marketing and our editorial and our promotion towards all of those moments, to create a wave of momentum in the marketplace.
There's a reassurance among our corporate partners who see us putting our money where our mouth is. It's a model that worked when I was at the NFL, and it works here.
It works here because it's authentic — it's the way the hockey ops guys look at their season, and the fans look at their season. We have a long season, and we want to give the marketers what they want. The Stanley Cup Playoffs, from a Madison Ave. point of view, come at a great time. You have a lot of companies that want to spend their advertising dollars in this quarter, in this window that we kinda own. It's a great quarter for us to make a lot of noise.
One such tent pole is the Winter Classic: How's the preparation for that going?
It's a beast.
We're ahead of where we've been. Last year, we didn't announce until September. The two or three before that, we announced around July 4. So we announced five or six months ahead, and thank God we did. There is so much work to be done.
It's such a big event because we're using two venues in Comerica and the Big House. We've got 110,000 tickets and 80 suites, and tons of demand. We'll probably have 200,000 tickets for various events with the Red Wings at Comerica. And it's big because it's Detroit and Toronto.
Have tickets gone on sale yet?
The clubs' [tickets] are going on sale in the next couple of weeks. The demand from sponsors is huge — at least twice as big as any previous Winter Classic. The demand from the clubs is off the charts. Everyone's calling the Detroit box office and the Toronto box office. So we're trying to figure out how many tickets the teams need or can use, and how many we can get into the general marketplace.
It's feeling as tight as Citizen's Bank was, to be honest.
Finally, how much impact do you have in the selection of Nickelback as the NHL Awards headliner this year?
I wasn't really influential. I'm pretty lame on the music front. I used to think I was pretty hip. Now I realize that if I know who they are, they're probably the wrong guy. Unless you're rollin' out U2 or the Stones.