NHL clears the way for more viewing parties
The NHL has altered its policy on local viewing parties of nationally televised playoff games, allowing teams to hold them more frequently and at greater scale.
The league historically limited large-scale viewing parties to one game per best-of-seven series to protect television partners and advertisers, as well as to avoid oversaturated or unsuccessful local events.
However, the league and broadcasters took note of recent successes, most notably the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in Nashville during the Predators’ run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. The popularity of the events and the desire to build local momentum and fandom with more frequent and bigger events around playoff games spurred the change, which now allows teams to host as many viewing parties as they desire.
“It’s fair to say that there was a level of energy created [in Nashville] that really got us focused on this topic,” said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy, who noted it had been annually discussed among the league’s broadcast partners. “We’ve now seen how these events have helped to both maintain and increase relevance of the teams nationally and in their markets, and how that energy is also helping our broadcast partners.”
Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, wrote in an email that the network was impressed with the viewing parties but that it will “continue to monitor the effect on viewership.”
Last year, the Stanley Cup Final averaged a 22.0 local rating in Nashville on NBC/NBCSN, even with large crowds of up to 50,000 people watching a game from outside Bridgestone Arena.
The Predators, who started public watch parties last year during the Western Conference Final, will have a free watch party for each of its playoff games this year. When the team is at home, it holds the viewing party across the street from Bridgestone Arena in a park, while for road games it holds the viewing inside the arena.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have also set up viewing parties for each of their playoff road games at different locations around the city in an effort to reach more fans, said Bill Wickett, the team’s executive vice president of communications. For their first road game of the postseason, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first round against the Devils, the Lightning held a viewing party at a sandcastle festival on Clearwater Beach that attracted 1,500 fans. For Game 4 they moved it to a food hall in downtown Tampa and got more than 4,000 fans.
“Fans want to be together watching these meaningful games, and there’s really no better time of the year to build your fan base and extend our reach into the community than in the playoffs,” he said.
The San Jose Sharks have moved viewing parties from local bars in years past to San Pedro Square Market, where the team has hosted more than 1,000 fans per game. Doug Bentz, Sharks vice president of marketing and digital, said the league’s new policy has particularly appealed to “younger fans that are all about this social experience.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been hosting viewing parties for home games on screens outside of PPG Paints Arena for the last 11 years but have now added elements such as food trucks and a DJ. This year, the team is also producing its own pregame show live outside the arena, which runs before NBC’s pregame that it shows on the screen.
“Our fans demand it, want it and expect it,” said Tom McMillan, Penguins vice president of communications, adding that more than 20,000 people watched the potential clincher in Game 5 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final outside the arena while the team was on the road.
The Winnipeg Jets have had the most Nashville-esque success with watch parties in these playoffs, with more than 18,000 people watching its first round-clinching win over the Minnesota Wild on April 20. Winnipeg has expanded capacity of its outdoor viewing space to more than 22,000 people in expectation for future crowds.
“It’s building a broader generation of fans, and taking the way the team is ingrained in the community to another level,” said Kevin Donnelly, senior vice president of venues and entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment, the Jets’ parent company.
Susan Cohig, the league’s senior vice president of business affairs and integrated marketing, said the events are all about fan engagement and creating “the NHL version of a tailgate party.”
“It’s a tremendous celebration,” she added.