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Let’s Talk About the NHL’s Ratings Problem

February 2, 2023, 7:17 PM ET [12 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Alarm bells are no doubt ringing in the NHL’s head offices as the league’s television viewership has dropped 22% in a single year.

There are two primary drivers for this decline.

First is the fragmentation of the way people consume media in the modern age. The NHL made a good deal with ESPN to air games via their app, but the problem of regional availability is a major obstacle. Many people are opting to ditch cable and satellite in favor of various apps, and because of this, local games are not available in market due to blackout restrictions for fans without cable. As a result, people turn to online streaming in order to watch local games rather than pay the cable company for a subscription they don’t really want.

The NHL needs to abandon the model of local distribution and offer a subscription-based service through ESPN or a league app to allow fans to watch games within their geographic locations. Centralized telecasts on one streaming service would allow fans to pay for the single product that they want (hockey), rather than paying for 100 channels of cable that they hate.

Fans will stream games for free online - or just not watch at all- when made to buy cable. Fans would be more likely to purchase a service if they were buying precisely what they want.

The second problem facing the league is a decline in old-school divisional antagonism. Modern NHL thinking has prioritized parity over entertainment with their move away from traditional division alignment in recent years. It makes zero sense that the Sabres will play the Maple Leafs three times this year while playing the Arizona Coyotes twice. A lack of traditional rivalry games has led to a stagnation of the product emotionally, and a return to playing regional rivals more frequently would bring more animosity and drama to games as divisional rivals learn the opposition’s tendencies and tempers flare over.

For that reason, we are going to re-align the conferences and division with the goal of reinvigorating rivalries.

The first thing to keep in mind when reorganizing divisions and conferences is any team movement from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference is going cause a huge fight because there is much more travel in the Western Conference. To solve this problem, we’re going to eliminate those conferences and go to a Northern Conference and Southern Conference. Now everyone has to travel.

Ownership probably wouldn’t like this idea because now there’s more geographic travel and that results in higher travel costs. To eliminate those concerns, divisional games within the conference will be played two-in-a-row within a host city.

Moving from an Eastern/Western philosophy does two things for viewership. First of all, it aligns all Canadian markets into a single conference, which would appeal to Canadian viewers who like to keep tabs on the teams within their borders. Secondly, this model creates much more robust regional rivalries than the existing model which has teams from Florida playing teams in the northeast.

Here are our new conferences:

Northern Conference:

Northeast Division: Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit, Columbus, Pittsburgh

Northwest Division: Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Colorado, Minnesota, Chicago

Southern Conference:

Southeast Division: Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Washington, NYI, NYR, New Jersey, Philadelphia

Southwest Division: Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles, Vegas, Arizona, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis

Some teams will not be happy with this arrangement from a rivalry standpoint, like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, who have been locked in mortal combat for half a century. Someone had to be mad. Them's the breaks. Speaking of that, let’s discuss how the game distribution will be set up.

Divisional Games: 6 per opponent

Conference Games: 4 per opponent

Cross-Over Division Games: 1 per opponent

The cross-over divisional format would be similar to the NFL, whereby each division from one conference will play one game against each team in a division from the opposite conference on a rotational basis. For example, in year one, each team in the Northeast division will play each team in the Southeast division one time, and the next year, the Northeast would play the Southwest. Half of these games would be home, and half would be away. The next time the divisions cross over, the home and away teams would switch.

This format will also re-introduce the old playoff format consisting of conference teams ranked 1-8 rather than the current format of three division winners plus two wild card teams, along with the introduction of the 3-2-1 points system. For those unfamiliar with that system, it means that teams get three points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime/shootout win, and one point for an overtime/shootout loss. Incentivizing regulation wins will lead to more aggressive and entertaining coaching decisions as a result.

Would these two changes solve all of the league’s problems? Of course not, but it would get people talking – and watching.
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