The Trade-Off: Why the NHL should get off TV and put games online for free

The National Hockey League has just started another season -- and just missed a chance to take a bold step to win a new generation of fans. The NHL should put all games online for free, supported by ads.

The NHL's TV ratings are the worst among major sports. Ratings in 2008–2009 were down compared to the mid-1990s. Regular-season games on nationwide network TV were getting a 1.0 rating -- half the audience that watched NHL games on network TV in 1995–96.
Consumers are willing to give up convenience for great fidelity, or ditch fidelity for great convenience. But anything that offers just so-so fidelity and so-so convenience falls into a no-man's-land of consumer apathy. And this is the NHL's problem. To most U.S. viewers, NHL games are not a high-fidelity TV sport. The puck is too small to be easily seen. The action and speed are difficult to capture on TV. On the convenience side, most NHL games air in the U.S. on obscure cable channels, so games can be hard to find. All in all, the NHL on TV, compared to other major sports, is not great in fidelity or convenience -- a bad situation for the league.

To implement a winning strategy as a mass-market TV sport, the NHL would have to boost either its fidelity or convenience relative to other TV sports. But it would be tough to beat the NFL on fidelity, and hard to get a lot more convenient unless prime-time network TV starts regularly carrying hockey games -- highly unlikely in the U.S. market.

But here's the ray of light: A study done for the NHL by Experian Consumer Research found that of all the major team sports leagues, NHL fans are younger, more tech-savvy, shop online more, and are 27 percent more likely to own a video game than fans of other leagues. In short, the NHL fan-base skews young and is comfortable with technology.

One conclusion: A large chunk of NHL fans would welcome being able to see their favorite teams on a laptop screen if they can't see those games on TV. The NHL does offer live games via the Web, but it's a premium service that costs $159 a year -- and the price kills the convenience for all but the wealthiest and most devoted fans.

Last year, I interviewed Ted Leonsis at a telecommunications industry event. Leonsis, who helped build AOL in the 1990s, owns the Washington Capitals NHL team. I asked him about the NHL's decades-long struggle to get even lukewarm TV ratings. What would he do about it, if he could start from scratch?

Without hesitation, he said he'd move the league to the Web, in a huge way. He'd put every game online -- live, supported by advertising, and free to viewers. Web sites like Hulu are finally bringing high-quality programming to computer and TV screens via the Internet. It seems like an opportune time for the NHL to take a daring leap into a new medium, and making the NHL the premier sports league of the digital generation.

Leonsis's idea doesn't just sound provocative -- it sounds right. Swinging the live broadcast of games to the Internet for free would give hardcore hockey fans a high-convenience way to watch their teams and feel more connected to the sport.

More interesting is the opportunity to win a broader sports audience through the Web. None of the major professional or college sports leagues regularly offer live games for free on the Web. If the NHL were to go to Web broadcasts of games in a big way, the NHL could grab the high-fidelity sports position on the Web.

The other major sports – football, baseball, basketball, car racing, golf – make too much money on TV to give it up and go to the Web. But the NHL is in a uniquely bad position on TV, which could make it easier to flip over to the Web and become the high-fidelity league associated with the digital generation – much as the NFL became the high-fidelity league for the TV generation.

Kevin Maney is the author of
Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don't (Broadway Books, 2009).

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