April is a beautiful month in Pittsburgh.
The bright orange construction cones begin sprouting on local roadways, the sun shines brightly off empty seats in PNC Park, and droves of fans gather outside Mellon Arena to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For the second consecutive postseason, the Penguins set up a 12-foot by 16-foot big-screen television outside Gate 3 of Mellon Arena. Last year, thousands of ticket-less fans flocked to the screen, with a healthy contingent showing up for Games 1 and 2 this season.
The result? A playoff atmosphere, but without the playoff price tag.
According to team president David Moorehouse, it's not just Stanley Cup fever that has the crowds a-coming. "What it shows is that Pittsburgh has become a full-fledged hockey town," Moorehouse said.
Whatever it is, NBC is hell-bent on stopping it.
On Saturday, the NHL's national broadcast partner handed down a sad decision: Sunday's Game 3 matchup against the Flyers would not be shown on the big screen. Instead, fans would have to tune in the old fashioned way, at home or in bars.
The reason? Ratings. According to Nielsen Media Research, the Peacock gets one rating point for every 11,000 Pittsburgh households that watch the game. The highest outdoor attendance total was the approximately 8,000 fans who watched the last game of the Stanley Cup finals last season.
You do the math.
Even more mind boggling is the fact that last year, NBC had no problem with the screen. There were even in-game references to the Penguin faithful watching from the comfort of their lawn chairs.
This season, NBC Universal said no. Pittsburgh's NBC affiliate, WPXI, was in full support of the team, but had no say in the matter. "I wish we, the local affiliate, could grant permission to the Pens, but quite frankly, our hands are tied," said Ray Carter, Vice President and General Manager of WPXI. "We do not hold the rights to the game; the NBC network in New York does."
The Penguins weren't happy, but they were compliant.
"We'd love to put the screen up there. But we'll follow the broadcast rules here," said Tom McMillan, the team's Vice President of Communications.
According to Yahoo! Sports, even the Canadian rights-holder, CBC, made a "informal inquiry" into the Penguins' situation, and offered its feed instead. The team declined.
The tragedy in all of this is not the fans forced to watch the game in a less dynamic atmosphere, or even that NBC is so concerned with fifteen dark Nielsen boxes in Pittsburgh. It's that a national broadcast partner can make or break a sports league.
National broadcast partnerships are supposed to be mutually beneficial. In exchange for advertising revenue, leagues get their games broadcast to the entire nation. The NHL, more than any other league, is desperately seeking national ascendancy afforded to its sister leagues.
In theory, nothing would be sweeter for the NHL. Playoff hockey is the greatest marketing campaign the league could offer. If a month and a half of hard hitting, high-intensity hockey doesn't pull in the casual observer, nothing will. But at what point does the NHL stand up for the fans that have already been through so much?
Maybe it's because the NHL doesn't have the footing to say no to a media giant, or maybe it's because the Commissioner doesn't have the guts to try. Whatever the reason, hockey fans are stuck "playing in NBC's sandbox," as Greg Wyshynski writes.
The bottom line is that the Penguins' outdoor screen—and the fact that it got shut out—is indicitive of a larger problem. If the NHL needs NBC to reach the national market, it needs to do more to defend the interest of its current fans. Instead of leaving the Penguin to duke it out with the Peacock, the NHL should take a stand.
Let the fans watch outside. It's a good story that makes waves.
Having your national broadcast partner as a giant buzzkill?
A bad story that makes bigger waves. Something the NHL, so clearly fighting the "good fight," is ill-equipped to handle.