NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller spoke to Awful Announcing earlier this week about the NHL on NBC as it enters its 10th season. Miller’s comments on what the NHL’s meant for the network and the ratings successes they’ve enjoyed can be found here. Here’s a look at what else he had to say, focusing on events like the Winter Classic, on scheduling matchups, and on NBC’s hopes to grow the sport even more. 

The Winter Classic has been one of the defining features of the NHL on NBC over the years, treating viewers to the unusual spectacle of pro hockey played outdoors in football and baseball stadiums, becoming a New Year’s Day tradition, drawing massive ratings and even spawning a spin-off Stadium Series for other outdoor games. Yet, according to Miller, it started life just as an attempt to give NBC some New Year’s Day programming and wasn’t immediately jumped on by the NHL.

“Well, I would love to tell you it was a spark of divine brilliance, but the fact of the matter was we had done the deal with the NHL in late ’04, we had gotten out of the college football bowl business, and we were looking for programming on New Year’s Day,” he said. “That year, the Yankees had lost to the Red Sox after being up 3-0 in the ALCS, and the Red Sox came on to win that and win the World Series. I thought it might be fun to see the Rangers host the Bruins at Yankee Stadium on New Year’s Day in the first season of our deal, which would be in January 2006 because our first season was 2005-06. And we posed the idea to the NHL, and they thought it was kind of interesting but they didn’t fully embrace it. And then we had the lockout in (2004-05) so we didn’t have any hockey to begin with.”

Miller said the key turning point for the Winter Classic concept was the NHL’s hiring of John Collins. Collins, who became the league’s chief operating officer in 2008, first joined the league in 2006 and became its senior executive vice president of business and media in 2007. Miller said Collins loved the idea and was crucial to making it work.

“Quite honestly, we didn’t really get any buy-in on the whole concept from anybody until John Collins joined the league, starting with the 2007 season,” Miller said. “I had been somewhat of a pest, trying to get the NHL to focus on it. John understood the real value here. So the two of us together kind of went back and pitched Gary Bettman and reached out to different teams.”

Lining up those teams was quite a challenge at first, both with the NHL teams playing in the game and with whatever team that was going to have their stadium converted into a hockey rink. Still, once it actually came together, the results were spectacular, and that led to it becoming an ongoing tradition.

“The Yankees initially didn’t really have any interest in it,” Miller said. “The Bruins were okay about it, the Rangers the same way. So we finally got the Buffalo Sabres to raise their hand [for] 2008 and say that they would host the first Winter Classic. We put the Pittsburgh Penguins in there who had this great sensational rookie in Sidney Crosby, we ended up with an unbelievable game in the snow in Buffalo in front of 75,000 crazy, wonderful hockey fans, and it became an instant classic. From that, the Stadium Series was born and the Winter Classic became a New Year’s Day staple.”

Miller said a big part of the initial Winter Classic’s success was thanks to the less-than-dominant college football slate it was competing with.

“We were fortunate that college football, at that point, had ceded the day,” he said. “They were no longer looking at New Year’s Day as a big day on their schedule, except for the Rose Bowl, maybe a later primetime game. The majority of the Bowl Championship Series games were played later in January. [This is correct; the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl were played Jan. 1, 2008, but the Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl and BCS national championship game were all later.] So we felt we had a window where if we could move quickly and decisively, we could capture that window for hockey. And, once again, we had no idea it would ever become the event that it has.”

According to Miller, the NHL’s support after Collins’ hire was invaluable.

“It doesn’t happen without John Collins and Gary Bettman and the people at the NHL embracing the concept and working with us to make it a big New Year’s Day event.”

The Winter Classic remains a strong event for the league, and it’s prompted them to expand the idea of outdoor games further. The NHL Stadium Series began in 2014 with a slate of four outdoor games apart from the Winter Classic (and there was also a Heritage Classic played that year in Vancouver’s football stadium), continued with one in 2015 and has two further ones set for this year. Miller said the Stadium Series has been beneficial for NBC so far.

“I think it’s gone really well,” he said. “We had a game in Dodger Stadium a couple of years ago, we had several games in Yankee Stadium where the Rangers played the Devils and Islanders and we had a packed house. We had unbelievably terrific hockey experiences that fans loved and embraced. And the league’s done a terrific job with their special events team, led by Don Renzulli, to make this a great event. As long as you don’t overdo it, and you keep it to a manageable number, and you travel the games around to different venues, I think it’s a great opportunity for the NHL to continue to grow and showcase their product.”

Miller said there is some concern of saturating the market with outdoor hockey, but he feels the NHL has kept the numbers of games reasonable so far.

“I think you’ve got to worry about that a little bit, but the NHL is very careful,” he said. “This year, they’re doing two games, one in Minnesota and one in Colorado, in addition to the game up in Boston on New Year’s Day, so they’re very careful about that and we’ve had a lot of conversations about that. It only makes sense in the right markets at the right times. Last year, they just did one game. So they’re very careful. They’re as tuned in to their product, their fan base, as any league could ever hope to be.”

Something else that’s helped boost the NHL on NBC is the creation of the Wednesday Night Rivalry series, featuring rival teams in marquee matchups each week on NBCSN. Miller said it’s been a big part of their ratings success.

“It’s been wonderful,” he said. “Wednesday Night Rivalry is really a creation of [NHL on NBC executive producer] Sam Flood and the league, and it’s turned out to be this great thing. People know that every Wednesday night from the middle of October to the middle of April, you’re going to get a great hockey game on Wednesday night with two teams that hate each other. As they like to say, ‘Hate sells,” and nothing could be more indicative of that than the numbers we’ve had for those Wednesday night games.”

A new innovation this year will be doing Wednesday night doubleheaders, which Miller said is to get more West Coast teams involved.

“You’ve got a lot of great rivalries now on the West Coast, and you can include teams like the Ducks and the Sharks and the Kings in those rivalries as well,” he said.

Some have occasionally questioned NBC’s scheduling and how many times certain teams are shown, but Miller said they do try to provide balance in addition to just grabbing marquee matchups.

“We try to be very balanced, we try to showcase as many teams as we can,” he said. “Clearly, the teams that perform very well both on the ice and in the ratings are going to be the clubs that get the majority of the attention. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a business for us, and they understand that. We encourage these teams to invest and get better and when they do, they’re rewarded with more exposure.”

Miller said market size and a team’s popularity is always going to be a factor, but winning can help a lot in boosting a team’s profile as a candidate for prime-time games.

“I certainly think that helps,” he said. “The big markets obviously drive a lot of value, but it’s kind of like Green Bay in the NFL; they’re a small market, but when they’re on TV, they deliver big ratings. So some of these small market teams, if they do well, they’re still going to get good exposure. I think we’ve done a good job and we’re very balanced, the way we should be to get every team on our air.”

Back in 2012, ESPN senior vice president Vince Doria spoke to Ed Sherman about that network’s lack of interest in the NHL at the time and said hockey was a regional sport that “doesn’t transfer to a national discussion.” Miller said he feels that’s an erroneous line of thought.

“I think that’s a common misconception, but you’ve got fans all over the country now, and the league has done a very good job in the way they’ve opened up different markets,” he said. “You’ve got your hockey fans down East in Florida with the Panthers, you’ve got a team in Carolina, certainly you have your team in Texas, they’re all over the place. Because the game has become so available, people fall in love with these athletes because these players are really exceptional. I would argue that there’s no other sport that has a level of athlete that’s a good athlete and loves their sport and is as passionate about there sport as hockey. You see it when we get to the playoffs, and there’s nothing more exciting in sports than the Stanley Cup playoffs.”

With the NHL on NBC heading into its second decade, Miller’s thrilled about how far it’s come and what’s ahead.

“From the time we started with the NHL in 2005-06 to 2015-16, we’ve doubled the ratings for the sport,” he said. “There’s a 79 per cent increase when you combine the regular season and the playoffs. That just doesn’t happen that often in television sports these days, so we’re really proud of those results.”

Part of that’s come from the boost on the cable side. When the contract started, NBC only had rights to weekend games on their main network, while the NHL’s cable deal was with the Outdoor Life Network (eventually rebranded to Versus). OLN/Versus was owned by Comcast, which acquired NBC in 2009; that led to the transformation of Versus to NBCSN in 2012.  NBCSN didn’t initially have a huge footprint, but that’s grown dramatically, which Miller said has helped hockey.

“The distribution of NBC Sports Network has grown from 69 million in 2011 to almost 85 million in 2015, so we’re growing in distribution and more people are able to get our games,” he said.  “And our games are so easily accessible on different networks, that’s helped as well.”

Miller said another big part of the success has been word of mouth spreading from hockey fans, something he thinks will help boost the sport going forward.

“I think it’s consistent programming, great promotion, great production, and the people who follow the sport really love the sport and help the word get out.”

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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