Hockey's NFL Play: NHL Bets on Unscripted Series, More Outdoor Games
The NHL and NBC Sports Network are hoping an on-the-ice and behind-the-scenes reality show can help them both raise their subdued profiles.
The seven-episode series, "NHL Revealed: A Series Like No Other," comes as NBC tries to build its fledgling sports network in the shadow of ESPN and alongside other challengers such as Fox Sports 1. The NHL, meanwhile, has long trailed football, baseball and basketball in both revenue and TV ratings.
But hockey has gained some wider attention with its annual outdoor Winter Classic game, which proved a hit when it began in 2008 and sparked the addition of five more outdoor games this season. Fans also consider hockey's experience for live spectators second to none. And the sport boasts some notoriously tough pro athletes -- just look at the headlines when a hockey player pulls out his own teeth on the bench. All are elements on which producers, the league and NBC want to capitalize.
"Not everybody has played this game," said John Collins, the league's chief operating officer, who worked at NFL Films early in his career and saw how it used tight close-ups of footballs spiraling through fall skies, player microphones and field-level cameras to create a modern mythology around football. "The more ability you have to help people understand just how good these guys are, how special they are, how fast the game is, and how tough the sport is, compared to a football or basketball, benefits hockey and benefits our players. They come off as incredible guys. The more you can help tell that story, the better it is for the business."
Inspired by HBO Sports' "24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic," the series will follow players before, during and after the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series outdoor games in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; the Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic in Vancouver; and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.
NBC's goal is to "really bring fans inside the ice -- and let people see what really goes on," said Jon Miller, NBC Sports' president of programming, who first pitched the idea of an outdoor, New Year's Day game to Mr. Collins and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman a decade ago.
NBC Sports' use of Pierre McGuire as the "Inside the Glass" reporter between team benches has demonstrated "that audio has so much more to offer, probably in this sport almost more than any other," said Mr. Miller.
There's a downside to player audio on a basic cable channel: NBCSN will have to employ a bleep button to edit the salty language that's permissible on HBO's, according to Mr. Miller. But at some point a "director's cut" will come out with those cuts restored, Mr. Collins said.
The series will not, however, include the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day. HBO is producing a new "24/7" series to cover that game, between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at the University of Michigan's "Big House" football stadium in Ann Arbor. It is expected to top hockey's attendance record of 104,173, set at a Michigan-Michigan State game in the same venue in 2010.
But it will be interesting to see what kind of TV ratings the Winter Classic draws after skipping a year due to last season's lockout. Ratings for the 2012 Winter Classic between the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers dropped from the year before. That may have been due to the shift of the game to Jan. 2 to avoid a conflict with the NFL, but it also raised the question whether the novelty of outdoor hockey is wearing off for viewers -- and whether the NHL is now going overboard with so many outdoor games this season.
The NHL is counting on the new outdoor blitz to sell big on Madison Avenue, especially since the 2013 Winter Classic was cancelled. "It's big event in a long regular season," Mr. Collins said.
Ross Greenburg, the former HBO Sports president who will serve as executive producer on "NHL Revealed" for the NHL, said he expects the show to focus more on players than "24/7," which has revolved around loud-mouthed coaches such as Bruce Boudreau and John Tortorella.
Stars will likely include league standouts such as Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. But Mr. Greenburg will also look to play up the "supporting actors": role players, coaches and family members.