There are two billion reasons why the NHL’s decision to skip the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, puts them in an awkward place with NBC.
That’s the value of their television contract, which makes NBC the exclusive rights holder for the NHL in the U.S. until 2021. Of course, that’s peanuts compared to the $7.65 billion NBC is paying the IOC for Olympic broadcast rights through 2032, but it’s still a rather hefty amount.
A source with knowledge of their relationship tells Puck Daddy that “NBC isn’t thrilled” with the NHL’s decision, which is to be expected. Here’s the official statement from an NBC spokesman:
“The Olympics have long been the world’s greatest international hockey tournament irrespective of whether professionals or amateurs are playing. Although we’re disappointed that NHL players will not get the chance to experience and compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics next February, we’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country.”
Now, the NHL pulling out of the Olympics would seem like a huge blow to the ratings for NBC, but you have to remember some important context here.
1 – The men’s hockey tournament has typically been featured on cable rather than the NBC mothership. It’s popular, to be sure, but not exactly the ratings driver that, say, figure skating is.
2 – The time difference, one of the reasons the NHL balked at going to South Korea, means that a 7 p.m. game in PyeongChang is a 6 a.m. game in New York and a 3 a.m. game in Los Angeles. So what’s really the ratings expectation there?
But more to the point, you have to understand what NBC wants out of the Winter Olympics hockey tournament: For the USA to contend for a gold medal.
That’s it. Full-stop.
American audiences don’t care about Canada beating up Sweden, but will watch en masse if the Americans are chasing gold. Time differences acknowledged, there’s no denying these numbers:
2010 Olympic hockey gold medal game: 27.6M viewers. But 2014 gold medal game (sans U.S.): 3.6M. https://t.co/1DSTI643Or
— Paulsen (@paulsen_smw) April 3, 2017
In theory, NBC would love for Team USA to be populated with NHL players. While there’s no tangible financial benefit for the NHL in going to the Olympics, the 2018 Games would no doubt help NBC put over young stars like Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel if Team USA thrived with them. So they’ll miss out on that marketing opportunity.
But as one source put it: NBC would be just as happy if a rag-tag group of underdogs wearing Team USA jerseys made a run at gold. There wouldn’t be the direct benefit to its NHL promotion and partnership, but lord knows they can sell that story to the viewers watching the Olympics (i.e. Lake Placid porn).
So this hurts NBC’s Olympic coverage; but depending on how Team USA does, it might not humble it.
(In a perfect world, all of this leads to NBC doubling its efforts to promote the women’s national team, which will not only have a better shot at gold than the men but also players you’ve heard of before. But we digress…)
Now, we haven’t even touched on the really, really awkward part about the NHL’s decision not to break for the Olympics:
How NBC intends to cover the NHL regular-season while also covering Olympic hockey.
Will the NHL be preempted on NBCSN? Because their ratings for the year can be juiced by those few weeks of Olympics.
Will Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick be in South Korea covering the replacements, or on set in Connecticut covering the pros?
Who knows? It’s uncharted territory in this partnership which, again, is worth $2 billion and goes until 2021.
You know, the year before the 2022 Olympics in China.