When this article was initially pitched prior to the start of the NBA Finals, it was presented as a defense of mostly later start times for games against the better wishes for my fellow New Yorkers and East Coast residents. My intention was to say that even though games broadcasted from Monday through Saturday wouldn’t tip-off until 9 p.m. Eastern (Sunday games tend to start at 8 p.m. Eastern), there had to be some sense of fairness for those who live elsewhere in the country. This remains largely true, as fans and teams do exist beyond the I-95 corridor, and have done so comfortably for generations.
Yet, in the rarest of times for our current sporting climate, a scheduling change for the NHL—alongside a wildly successful initial season under new broadcasting deals—has provided a relatively strong counterargument.
Instead of the usual scheduling overlap where the Stanley Cup Final would start mere days before the NBA Finals, both championship series were showcased separately for the first time in ages, thanks to the NHL’s originally planned Olympic break in February. (NHL players did not participate in Beijing, and the league decided to use the break to play games rescheduled due to the COVID wave in December and January.)
In the NHL’s initial season back in the fold with ABC and ESPN, every game of the Stanley Cup Final began at 8 p.m. Eastern, regardless of the day of the week. This may not be ideal for hockey fans on the West Coast as the game would start in the midst of rush hour at 5 p.m. It’s even earlier in Alaska and Hawai’i! Yet the vast majority of North America would get an entire non-overtime game before 11 p.m., or at least one full overtime period—including breaks —before the clock struck midnight.
With short pregame coverage on ABC, fans were thrust into the action fairly quickly. But the benefit of the 8 p.m. Eastern start time was made clearer during the post-game coverage of the Colorado Avalanche’s Cup-clinching Game 6 win on Sunday (pictured above).
With the league’s previous partner, Comcast-owned NBC Sports, over-the-air NBC typically capped off the broadcast with little more than the Stanley Cup presentation and the star player having his chance to skate with the chalice before going to the local late evening news across the country. (Depending on the night, this was also in consideration of the nationally-airing Tonight Show.) Fans were sent to NBC Sports Network for the majority of post-game coverage, and while that gave the channel a late-night bump, not every viewer would switch over to the now-defunct cable network.
This year, ABC kept their local affiliates waiting, airing nearly all of its post-game coverage afterwards instead of bouncing to ESPN or ESPN+ for interviews and the Avs’ celebration. Of course, this was an easy decision to make for a Sunday night, as local news wasn’t pressed up against Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The NHL’s approach is not the case for the NBA, which has drawn criticism for their Finals schedule for ages—from start times to days in between games.
ABC and the NBA seem to largely schedule Finals games based on the longstanding primetime daypart that defines over-the-air broadcast TV: 8 p.m. through 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7 p.m. through 11 p.m. on Sundays. Historically, television usage rates (when most people are watching) peak after the first hour of the daypart, which explains why those networks often schedule their best performing shows at 9 p.m. during the week and at 8 p.m. on Sundays. In following that standard model, the NBA wants to gather most viewers at that peak, regardless of how competitive a game turns out to be, or much to an Easterner’s chagrin, if it goes into overtime.
The NBA and ABC’s use of the old formula does make sense for another reason. By sheer numbers, it makes sense to schedule a Finals game with the east in mind. Most of the US population lives here. Washington, D.C., 17 states along the Atlantic Coast, and much of the Ohio Valley are fully encompassed in the Eastern Time Zone (five others, including most of Florida, straddle Eastern and Central time).
If you’re a Golden State Warriors fan, the last eight years have been as good as it gets. As the biggest draw in the league, not only has the team won multiple titles and played for others, but they won without completely interfering with your bedtime unless you were reveling in the Bay Area streets after the final buzzer.
Yet, unless you lived out East and/or were a Boston Celtics fan, you were negotiating with your sleep-deprived body in case a game went into overtime. “I have to work/go to school in the morning.” “I’m not staying up for a blowout.”. All of these are valid reasons when you’re trying to balance your love of sports with all the other things that take up the rest of your waking hours.
Most sports fans west of the Mississippi are lucky to not have to consistently deal with this issue, though the chances of missing the start of the action slightly diminish the East Coast envy.
The NBA understandably believes that it can catch more bees with honey with its Finals schedule. Its larger viewership compared to the NHL is likely all that’s needed to justify not adopting a similar scheduling approach to their hockey brethren. And with a half-hour pregame show and tie-ins with the aforementioned Jimmy Kimmel Live attached to each non-weekend NBA Finals game, surely there are financial considerations to keep the status quo. (Stephen A. Smith, Jalen Rose and Mike Greenberg can’t make that kind of money without putting in some nighttime hours.)
For many hockey fans, ESPN/ABC’s coverage of the NHL has left much to be desired. Yet, its Stanley Cup Final scheduling provided a great template for other leagues to follow when it comes to maximizing the primetime window. A 10-minute pregame show that starts at 8 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific may not work for diehard NBA fans, but it’s arguably not as critical to the less-than-regular NBA viewers. (And at this point, it seems pregame starts from the moment we wake up and log onto social media, so what are we really missing?) Yet, moving up the start time not only gives all fans a greater chance to watch the Finals in their entirety, but it provides the perfect setup to the entire reason why we’ve been watching these games since late October.
While beautiful in its own right, the Larry O’Brien Trophy doesn’t give the unmistakable vibes that Lord Stanley does. Yet considering the pursuit from its winners and passion from their fans, a time change might make it so a wider—and perhaps, less sleepy—audience could properly take in the moment before a long offseason begins.
[Image from Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports]