NBC executives are hoping that the National Hockey League (NHL) and its players’ union reach a new labor agreement and avoid a lockout that could leave the network scrambling to find a replacement for one of its sports programming mainstays.
Hockey is a linchpin of NBC Sports programming — the network signed a new US$2 billion, 10-year contract with the league last year. A strike or delay in the upcoming NHL season would throw cold water on the momentum it built up from the London Olympics, which nightly averaged 31.3 million viewers for the network.
Labor talks between the NHL and the union representing its players broke down last week over economic issues such as revenue sharing. The league’s owners have said they would lock out players if a deal is not reached by a Sept. 15 deadline. As of Wednesday afternoon, talks between the two sides had not yet resumed. The worst-case scenario for Comcast-owned NBC, which holds the exclusive national broadcast rights to NHL games, is for the entire upcoming season to be canceled. That is not without precedent. The NHL and its players union scrapped the entire 2004 to 2005 season after failing to achieve a labor deal.
A better, but not ideal, scenario for NBC would be a delay to the NHL season, similar to what happened to the National Basketball Association last year. The first regular season NHL game is scheduled for Oct. 11, but exhibition games start about two weeks earlier.
The timing could not be worse for Comcast, which is relying on hockey to build up the NBC Sports Network, its fledgling cable sports channel. A lockout would leave the network, previously known as Versus and the Outdoor Life Network, with major holes to fill in its prime-time lineup.
“The NBC Sports Network got some great lift and visibility and awareness with the Olympics and they’d like to keep that momentum by having the NHL,” said Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at media buying firm MindShare.
Comcast’s plan was to couple the momentum generated by the London Olympics with hockey, whose television ratings have increased in recent years, as a way to brand the NBC Sports Network as a rival destination to Disney’s ESPN and the regional sports networks operated by News Corp’s Fox unit.
More viewers than ever before sampled the NBC Sports network during the Olympics, which aired live team sports during the games. The women’s US soccer final, for instance, garnered more than 4.3 million total viewers, a higher total than last year’s highest-rated Stanley Cup playoff game.
NBC Sports spokesman Chris McCloskey said in a statement that NBC is hopeful the labor situation will be resolved without disrupting the cable network’s lineup. However, if a lockout does occur, he said, the network can offer alternatives.
“In the event of a labor stoppage, we are preparing a selection of replacement programming that includes soccer, boxing, original programming, and college football, basketball and hockey,” McCloskey said.
In addition, NBC itself could be without the NHL’s signature Winter Classic game. The outdoor game, played on New Year’s Day, has turned into a marquee event that generates solid ratings and ad revenue for NBC.
The next match-up, between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, is set to be played in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in front of 100,000 attendees.