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For NHL, Now is the Time to Open Viewing Options for Savvy Fanbase

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I have a confession to make: I've been stealing baseball games for years.

Ok, that's not the whole story. The thing is that my cable subscriber overlaps the channels which have the NHL Center Ice package as well as MLB Extra Innings. The last few years, they've simply forgotten to shut off my access to those channels at the end of the hockey season and as a result, I've been getting all MLB games on my cable free of charge. Now I usually don't watch those games, but I'll admit that when I catch a whiff of a particularly entertaining game going on, especially one involving that-thing-which-shall-not-be-named-for-fear-of-the-jinx, I won't hesitate to switch over and watch. I know in the back of my head that I've got Goofus patting me on the back while Gallant wags his finger like the mama's boy suckup that little shit has always been, but the draw is just too powerful in these rare situations.

So here I am, not paying for something I know that they have a right to charge me for. I do it fairly shamelessly because this situation is like the drive-thru throwing an extra order of fries into my bag accidentally. I could do the absolutely honest thing and give them back, but they're just going to throw those away anyway. There's no harm. Where there is harm is for the restaurant to decide you absolutely cannot ever have fries unless you order the entire meal and then you deciding that you hate that deal enough to just up and steal an order.

The problem there is that this is not a simple-black-and-white case and there is more than one bad guy in this situation. Such is the way with the tangled web of broadcast and blackout rights that dictates how people get to watch NHL games these days. Just like the restaurant above, it makes outlaws out of honest people and costs the business money they should otherwise earn.

Let me get this out of the way first, so there's no confusion: I'm very fortunate to be in a place where I can afford cable and internet and where my providers have access to every channel on which hockey appears. I've been getting NBC Sports Network since it was still called the OLN and as soon as NHL Network became available as a purchase option on my cable, I jumped on that. I get Center Ice every year and watch somewhere in the neighborhood of 300+ games during the regular season each year (much to chagrin of my wife). Things seem to have worked out perfectly for my level of interest and my ability to stomach the amount I have to pay to feed that interest. Not everybody is as fortunate to have had every one of these things come together for them, be it the ability to afford the yearly cost for this coverage or the availability of even having the right channels on which to watch the games they want to.

I don't agree with people turning to illegal online game streams to watch hockey games when they don't have an option that works as well for them as my coverage does for me, but I can hardly turn my back on them when it comes to listening to their complaints. Maybe I'm either too optimistic or stupid, but I feel that widening the amount of choices would severely narrow the number of lawbreakers in this situation. It would create a better value for the customers and I believe would create more paying and repeat customers, not to mention a better overall experience for everybody.

Under the current system, if you live outside of the coverage area for your team, the best bet to watch all 82 of their games is to have cable or satellite and order Center Ice or have a (robust) internet connection and buy a subscription to NHL GameCenter. That will get you a large portion of their games. Of course, you would also need to somehow get NHL Network and NBC Sports Network to guarantee you'd get all of them (since you can still stream all NBC games for free). Compared to where the options were many years ago, that is a fantastic leap in access. Unfortunately, just think about all of the excess crap you also have to have just to get that. I don't know about you, but if I want to guarantee I can watch all 82 games of the Red Wings, I have to also pay for something that gives me four channels dedicated solely to women, six channels dedicated solely to children, five channels for various types of prayer, a channel that plays nothing but showtunes all day every day, the network that gave us MANswers, and somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve channels dedicated to nothing more than selling me either jewelry or electronics which are fantastic for taking beautiful pictures of funny-looking horses.

That's cool if you want all of that. I understand there are lots of women and children and home shoppers and bros out there with their own lifestyles and I'm glad that there are things out there designed to make them happy. I still feel like I get enough value out of my cable subscription that the stuff I do watch is worth all the horrible filler that I try to avoid. But just like above, what if I only want fries? I pay for the Center Ice package and all of my various tiers because I do want to watch those 300+ games of every team in every market. If you price me out of that, the least I would want is something which I can afford that allows me to still consume at least some of your product legally. I don't want to steal illegal online streams any more than I feel most people want to deal with the generally crappy quality, laggy feeds, virus-infected websites, and the annoying hush-hush dance of eliciting the illicit ten minutes before puck drop.

Now I know there are a lot of contractual roadblocks in the way and a lot of people are going to have to come to terms with the changing landscape of the consumer being savvy enough to ask for and expect things on-demand. Fox Sports Detroit doesn't care if somebody in Kansas wants to watch their channel because FS-D's advertisers don't feel it does them any good. Dr. Rahmani, Belle Tire, and the Bernstein Family don't particularly care if I get their message and aren't particularly willing to pay extra to make me aware of their brand names.

But why not? Didn't I just mention the three of them? Aren't you now more brand aware of those three than you were 30 seconds ago? Is every single reader of this blog non-local? If all of commercials are solely about direct sales to local markets, then explain to me how an idiotic squealing pig doing a road luge while holding pinwheels does absolutely ANYTHING to directly sell car insurance.

Now I'm not saying that my brand awareness of Spartan Stores does very MUCH to help them do more business, but I'm also not asking to be subjected to these commercials for free. I get that part of the reason they charge for Center Ice is to offset the production costs. I'm just wondering about the benefit of giving me the choice to pay for either absolutely EVERY hockey game or very close to zero hockey games.

I just don't quite see how sports consistently fails to add value-priced tiers, which works fairly well just about everywhere else. If all of Center Ice costs x-amount of dollars, then what about charging x*60% for one team? Are you afraid that the number of people who currently pay for all of Center Ice dropping down to the one-team tier will drastically outnumber the people who would be willing to pay $100 to get what will probably amount to no more than 75 games for a single team (after factoring in the ones which get picked up nationally)?

Do you think you'd lose business even more by charging $3.50 or so for a single game? More business than you lose by driving people to an illegal stream where they break the law and you see nothing for it? Again, don't forget your advertisers here. When this happens, the league has people stealing from them on both sides, since you're not getting any money from them watching illegally and your advertisers aren't paying a cent more for the consideration that there are more eyeballs on their product.

As for nationally-televised broadcasts on NHLN and NBCSN, I get that you want people to demand your channels. That's why you try to steal the very best of what you have to offer for those. The consumer demand to receive those channels puts pressure on the providers to give you a better deal so they can have the privilege of the non-game filler meal you're selling and you can sell your channel to more advertisers by being available on more providers. Now imagine how well you could bolster those numbers by controlling the online transmissions of those feeds and getting your own count for how many people are actually watching what you're producing.

It's time for the league and the networks to drop the dumb-bomb approach to getting eyes on their product. Today's hockey fan is much more tech-savvy than you'd like to admit and much more honest than you'd drive most of them to be when it comes to that which you've already successfully sold to them. Sure, you're always going to get some number of entitled thieves who believe it's their right to free entertainment whenever and however they want. The best you can for yourself is to give people a sane and reasonable incentive to stop associating with them.

Give us options and we will buy them.