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Tight Playoff Races: Good for the NHL, Bad for Hardcore Fans

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The Red Wings played 14 games in March since the trade deadline passed and "the push" for the playoffs started. They'll play five more to finish out the season, including tonight.

Of those 19, NBC announced that five of them would be on a nationally broadcast channel (either NBC or NBCSN) back at the end of July, so we already knew that better than 1 out of every 4 games would get boosted for a national feed. The Wings are still a national draw after all. However, aside from the obvious grabs made early in the season, the league has the ability to flex pretty much any game to air on the league's flagship network NHLN. So far, in the post-deadline race, the Wings have had six such games nabbed by the channel:

April 1st against the Wild
March 24th against the Habs
March 19th against the Panthers
March 12th against the Rangers
March 10th against the Jets
March 6th against the Blackhawks

So that's six more games that have been flexed. With four games left to go after tonight, and three available to be flexed (NBC has not yet decided what their matchup will be for Saturday April 9th, but the Wings vs. the Rangers could very well find itself in that slot if the race comes down to the last day of the season). This means so far we know that 11 out of the team's last 19 games are not available via Center Ice or NHL.tv Subscriptions. The number is likely to be 12 and could be higher than that by the time all is said and done.

Stating the Obvious

Tight playoff races are interesting and fun for casual fans. They're one of the strongest ways possible to get people off the fence about following the NHL, so the interest is obvious in regards to getting those games to the most eyes possible. This is why, despite my personal dislike of many of the ways NBC covers games, I understand these national-interest games being broadcast on national channels to get the widest possible coverage out there to would-be fans.

From a monetary standpoint, the league wants the hardcore fans to buy Center Ice/NHL.TV AND to subscribe to NBCSN and NHL Network. This is how they make the most money and the current legal landscape of broadcasting rights puts them well within their rights to force a lot of wasteful spending by their dedicated fans in order to get this entire experience. They know there are illegal ways around that and currently seem more interested in shutting those means down than taking the massive risk associated with changing things for the better.

The NHL Network's Game Coverage is Awful

Unfortunately, the NHL Network doesn't cater to would-be fans or casuals. The NHL Network is a second-tier vice grip on the hardcore fans, taking advantage of those fans' inability to stop watching no matter how much they butcher the product (something that seems to have seeped out into the league's idea in how their website should be designed too).

I am one of those suckers who pays to make sure that I get to see every Red Wings game. I subscribe to Center Ice and I have a satellite provider through which I get NBCSN, NHL Network, and a whole host of other crap that I don't care about just because buying all that junk is the only way to get every Red Wings game and I can tell you without a doubt that games on NHL Network are the worst experience. Mostly because of how slapdash everything feels.

The Studio Versus the Broadcast

When NHLN grabs a game, they don't send a crew out to cover it. Instead, they grab one of the existing feeds (showing preference to home team feeds and Comcast channels most-often) and then slap their own branding on top.

The problem here is that we're used to seeing professionally-produced broadcasts where there's interplay between folks in the studio and those at the arena. On NHLN feeds, those disappear. The studio heads at NHLN talk a bit about the game and then cut to the local feed just as the puck drops (sometimes after). This is often a jarring experience for the watcher, as we have to get caught up in what the local crew has been talking about for the last 30 seconds between the end of the anthems and the start of the game. Intermissions are the same disjointed effort, where they abruptly cut off the local feed and then jump back onto it 17 minutes later.

Adding to the feel that the NHLN broadcasts are a cardboard spoiler taped to the back of a Honda Civic is that they often remove broadcast overlays and cut off many of the rinkside reports that local feeds do coming out of commercial breaks. Nothing is more fun than hearing Ken Daniels thank Trevor Thompson for saying something you couldn't hear or listening to Mickey Redmond talk circling something on the upcoming schedule only to see a different graphic on screen.

It's a Ripoff

Here's the thing: if you're a hardcore Red Wings fan, there's a real good chance you spent money on a season package to watch all 82 games. That's the way it's promoted, isn't it? Except that isn't how it works. If you paid a subscription to watch all of your team's games, you only paid to watch 66 of them right off the bat, due to the preseason national broadcast schedule having Detroit on for 16 of those games. Once you add in all the times that the NHL Network steps in and swipes a feed from you, your "all-season" package buys you somewhere less than 75% of the team's games.

Even better is that the way these games are flexed, you don't know how many games you're signing up to get at the beginning of the season because they tend to happen more often in tighter playoff races. If the Wings were much better or worse than they are this season, your subscription would have bought you more games, as NHLN would have found other games to steal from other teams' hardcore fans.

The NHL does this because it makes business sense to force the fans who love the team most to spend the most and the only way to really fix it is for fans to refuse to buy into such a shitty system where the league believes they can deliver such a badly half-assed product, but I know it's just lip service because when the puck drops tonight, I'll be on NHLN watching. As it turns out, in many cases, they absolutely CAN deliver that. It's too bad too, because this sport deserves better than the league that runs it.