NBC Sees Ratings Rewards from New NHL Playoff Format

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The refreshed structure for the 2013-14 season prompted division rivalries such as the L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks to play each other, and has brought "more anger, angst and action," says NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood.

NBC Sports Group was banking on some heated rivalries to boost the ratings for the NHL playoffs, and the hatred on and off the ice has paid off. 

After launching a new format for the 2014 playoffs, viewership for the games on NBC is up 39 percent and up 35 percent on NBCSN, according to the network.

"This year has a new format that intensifies the play on ice and puts rivalries together. It's been a nice advantage to the way the playoffs have rolled out," Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports and NBCSN tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"It was oriented before the season started that teams would end up playing their divisional rivals in the first round of the playoffs to create familiarity on the ice, which creates more anger, angst and action."

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With less than 30 miles separating the stadiums for the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, their second-round series is being heralded as the beginning of a golden age for southern California hockey.

Traditionally a cold weather sport, fans in the Golden State have been increasingly warming up to hockey since the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and the Kings won in 2012, with more than 50,000 supporters on both sides filled Dodger Stadium in January to watch them play the first outdoor game west of the Mississippi River. 

With the Lakers out of the NBA playoffs, the Clippers' on-the-court play being overshadowed by the Donald Sterling racism scandal, and the Dodgers locked into a deal with Time Warner Cable and SportsNet LA, an increasing number of viewers are turning to the "Freeway Series" in hockey for their local sports action.

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"In L.A., the Ducks and the Kings don't get along, that is par for the course. This presents an opportunity for two teams to play who don't like each other," says Flood. "Back in the east, the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens have a long history of dislike so they are playing each other. Minnesota and Chicago are both the big boys in the middle of the country and they are trying to prove themselves."

The new structure -- with a possible 105 playoff games airing and 260 hours of programming -- meant that the top three teams in each division automatically qualified for the playoffs and were designated one, two and three seeds, with a wild card as the number four. "So you are guaranteed that you'll play someone in the same division on the same side of the bracket," explains Flood, plus "having every game on national television is a dream come true for hockey fans, especially displaced ones."

This is all good news following a 2012-2013 season that was marred by the NHL lockout that sacrificed 625 regular-season games and meant that the first puck didn't drop until January instead of October. 

Another reason why hockey, which has long been considered a great live sport but lacking on TV, has become more accessible is the advancements in high definition television. "The puck is easier to see and having a bigger vertical footprint allows it to be watched left to right rather than just up and down," explains Flood, adding that having "Inside the Glass" reporters at ice level "makes the game more intimate."

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Heading into the NHL playoffs with the momentum boost from the Sochi Winter Olympics -- where the ratings averaged 21.4 million during primetime -- didn't hurt either. 

"Dramatic games like the U.S. and Russia match-up attracted the casual viewer who then gets to see some of the stars of the NHL on the main stage and learn what a global game the NHL has become," says Flood.

The next goal for both NBC and the NHL "is to expand consumption -- to have a Kings fan want to watch hockey if the Kings aren't playing, or to have a Boston Bruins fan want to watch a Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins game because they love hockey so much," much liked the NFL, where football fans will watch everything. "We're beginning to see that in hockey," and part of achieving by "creating rivalries and stars, that creates viewing interest."

The Kings and Ducks next meet up on Saturday at 6.30 p.m. airing on NBCSN, with Los Angeles currently leading the series 2-1.