- Last year, DirecTV and Versus had a stalemate that kept Versus off DirecTV customer screens until March 15, 2010.
- MSG and DISH Network are at loggerheads, so DISH customers can't watch Buffalo Sabres games in that market.
- Fox Sports Ohio was dropped by DISH last night. Blue Jackets fans who have DISH are outta luck.
- And then, you have those of us in the Insight Communications world - we can't get Insight to carry the NHL Network or NHL Center Ice!
I'm sure there are more points of contention that I could highlight, but the message to fans is clear: We are pawns in a money game between the content creator/distributors and the utilities that actually give us our TV signals. And it stinks.
Somehow, someway, the NHL needs to keep its games from being held hostage. Doing this places the league and its teams on the side of the fans while protecting its legitimate business interests. If it doesn't, the pirate video sites that are all over the web will only become more prominent - and we'll be watching NHL games with Russian tv ads more and more often.
Fortunately, it appears that the NHL and its clubs are starting to address this matter through their moves to stream preseason games (that just can't make it onto TV) through team websites. Kudos also should go to Fox Sports Ohio for streaming a game on its site this past week as well.
Streaming games through sports network or NHL team sites in a pay-per-view or season package manner makes perfect sense. In addition, so does expanding the incredible GameCenter Live package to include home market games (at least when local cable/satellite providers are balking at showing the games). More and more, computers and high-definition televisions can be integrated to show computer content on a bigger screen...surely the NHL and its teams (and broadcast partners!) know this. In fact, I've been toying around with hooking my little laptop up to my tv to show GameCenter Live content just this week. It's not HD-pristine, but that's a function of my underperforming laptop and not the stream that NHL.com is throwing to me. Point is, it's possible to bypass cable and satellite companies altogether. The NHL, its teams and its broadcast partners need to be as proactive on this front as they were at Brendan Shanahan's experimental rules camp and ensure that provisions are in place to keep the fans from unnecessarily suffering through corporate boardroom showdowns.
The NHL also is making moves to stream games in local markets right now through handheld devices like iPhones and Droid phones. It's a cute idea, perhaps something that might work well for me on a portable screen like an iPad, but I have no desire to watch a hockey game on a 3-inch screen. It's hard enough to follow a hockey game on a big screen in standard definition...why would I want to require a microscope to see a game? But that's my opinion, and I'm sure others would love to have NHL games on their phones. (Might make a subway commute more enjoyable, for example.)
Beyond individual innovations and developments, however, the NHL needs to be proactive in asserting its right to have its fans watch its games. The incidents referenced above are not going to stop anytime soon, and the league needs to wake up to this reality as its renews its broadcast deals. So let me suggest a series of principles that the NHL, its teams and its broadcast partners should live up to as a means to ensure the long-term vitality of professional hockey in North America:
- Every individual within 150 miles of a given NHL team should have the ability to watch his or her home team, every game, in high-definition. Whether that's on TV or online is irrelevant - blanket coverage is the issue. This should be accomplished at minimal to no cost to the fans.
- Every individual in North America should have the ability to watch the NHL Network. Online or on TV. And, ideally, this too would be at minimal or no cost to the fans.
- Every individual in North America should have access to GameCenter Live (which I believe already happens) and/or Center Ice. As these represent value-added services beyond watching the home team and the league publicity organ, I suggest that the NHL is fully within their rights to charge extra.
- The NHL and its clubs should reserve the right to ensure that the first three principles are upheld if its contracted partners - through broadcaster/distributor disputes unrelated to the NHL or its clubs - cannot do so themselves. Thus, the Blue Jackets have the right to deliver CBJ games to DISH customers if Fox Sports Ohio and DISH can't figure out how to do it themselves. Fox Sports Ohio can either embrace alternative means or sit by the wayside as the Blue Jackets figure out another vehicle to get games onto fans' screens. And that should be in the teams' contracts with their broadcast partners. No exceptions.
- The NHL and its clubs should reserve the right to explore new content distribution channels in every broadcast partner contract - TV, radio or otherwise. Who would have thought that games on phones were a realistic possibility five years ago? And what's next that we have not considered?
I think that these five principles respect the fans and the NHL's (and its member clubs) economic interests. They also send a clear message to the broadcast partners that the league, and its fans, will not be pawns in their boardroom games.