While NASCAR and golf are back on television in the United States, team sports are a little bit tougher to manage. Along with the challenges of person-to-person contact that come with these events, teams and leagues must manage how to handle testing, postseasons, player salaries, venue management, broadcast partners and more, all while trying to keep from spreading COVID-19 among its participants.
The NBA’s been tossing around numerous ideas around how to return to play, but have yet to commit to a site or format just yet. Major League Baseball, which had yet to begin the 2020 season, is stuck in negotiation mode. But the NHL, which (like basketball) was just a month from the postseason when play ceased in mid-March, seems to be first out of the gate with an tangible plan of action.
For this audience, the detail that matters most is that when the NHL resumes play, it will include a 24-team postseason — an eight-team increase from what’s typical. The event will also go back to the old playoff format of simple Eastern Conference and Western Conference brackets, temporarily removing the derided divisional setup that has been in place since 2014. An expanded field means over two-thirds of the league’s fan bases would now actively care about the postseason. For a league that typically fails to generate the same size of audience the NBA does, this is a potential TV goldmine.
A similar NBA setup would make for obvious March Madness comparisons, but hockey has no real comparison point apart from the Olympics (itself a TV monolith). Holding an expanded tournament like this, including five-game series in the first round and round-robin for quarterfinal seeding, creates night after night of hockey action with real stakes — plus the potential for a Cinderella run from a team seeded as low as 12th.
According to iSpot, national NHL broadcasts saw $76.8 million in estimated TV ad spend for 2019-20 — an average of $477,000 per day. If the regular season had been completed, it would’ve added another $11.4 million at that pace. However, replacing the last 10-12 games of the season with a playoff including most of its largest markets (Los Angeles would be the most notable absence) potentially makes up for those lost TV ad revenues, even if not the arena gate receipts. Even prior the Stanley Cup Final in 2019, live national broadcasts of the playoffs generated over $450 million in ad revenue, per iSpot, and that was for a typical 16-team event.
While the Stanley Cup playoffs have long been a major part of the sports calendar in America (and of course, Canada), the NHL has had its issues in recent years. Along with the 2004-05 lockout that cost the league the entire season and a severely shortened 2012-13 season for similar labor strife, the NHL has an accessibility problem with a lack of many identifiable stars and a lack of diversity compared to the majority-U.S. audience. A tournament that captures attention for well over a month, and reintroduces a sports-starved public to playoff hockey could be exactly what the league needs to drum up new interest.
League expansion and parity have long been sticking points for NHL purists, and this 24-team playoff isn’t going to win any fans among those that would already contend the league is bloated and its postseason fails to crown the “best” team champion more often than not. But those individuals are probably watching regardless of those critiques. A move like this has a much higher upside for new or previously hesitant fans — ones that perhaps have wanted to get into the NHL but have felt encumbered by a feel of exclusivity or a overly long season and postseason schedule.
With primary U.S. broadcast partner NBC both trying to succeed without the Olympics this year and launching its own streaming platform, Peacock, the NHL’s expanded postseason could also fill a real business need for them this summer. Potentially pushed aside at times for more “exciting” fare while the playoffs are going on (at least until things get down to the conference finals), the NHL could now possibly grab centerstage as one of the most valuable properties on TV.
A lot of logistics still need to be figured out, starting with dates and host cities, as well as a determination of how the NHL’s collection of non-U.S players all get back to their home teams (many of which are in Canada, by the way). But in putting a plan out there, the NHL’s at least inspired some confidence — and grown real excitement for the upside that may be ahead.