During Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, Craig Laughlin tried to walk the Capital One Arena concourse in Washington, D.C.
“But I couldn’t get around without stopping for selfie after selfie after selfie,” said Laughlin, a former player who has been an on-air hockey analyst for NBC Sports Washington since 1990, when the regional sports network was known as Home Team Sports.
The actual hockey game was 2,100 miles away at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, but 14,000 Washington-area fans showed up to the arena for a watch party and the D.C. RSN made sure to take advantage of the excitement.
NBC Sports Washington had a crew in Las Vegas for pregame and postgame shows, of course. But the RSN also kept several of its well-known on-air personalities in D.C. to follow the game from the fans’ perspective. Like Laughlin, Al Koken, who has been with the RSN since 1984, was spotted on the concourse taking selfies. Studio host Rob Carlin — a relative newcomer to the RSN; he started in 2011 — high-fived fans from the RSN’s set on F Street, outside the arena’s entrance.
The RSN sent its on-air personalities and cameramen into the arena, the surrounding streets and local bars to interact with fans for the channel’s pregame and postgame coverage.
“Having presences in both places and incorporating fans is what differentiates us from what you’ll see elsewhere,” said Damon Phillips, general manager of NBC Sports Washington. Phillips was named to the post in January.
The TV ratings for these shows were not massive, though network officials said they were higher than they typically would have been. But the RSN’s effort to place itself in the middle of the fans’ celebrations is about more than ratings. All season long, NBC Sports’ RSNs have made an effort to incorporate fans into their telecasts — something referred to corporately as catering to “authentic fans,” and this postseason provided an extension of that.
It’s not a novel concept to have an outside desk among fans — ESPN has perfected the idea with “College GameDay.” And this isn’t the first time D.C.’s RSN used a set at the arena. For the past several years, NBC Sports Washington had a presence for playoff runs by the Capitals and Wizards.
But its presence this year is much bigger, with a larger set perched on a stage overlooking the crowd and a more complex production.
The bigger efforts match the added energy that has taken over Chinatown during the Caps’ playoff run. This market has not felt this sort of excitement in decades, maybe longer.
It’s been a long time since a team from D.C. competed for a championship. I remember watching CBS as the Washington Bullets won their only championship in 1978. My high school canceled classes in February 1983 so students could attend the Redskins Super Bowl parade. But I have never witnessed scenes in my hometown like I have over the past two weeks.
During the Stanley Cup Final, the Chinatown streets around Capital One Arena have been packed regardless of whether the games are in D.C. or not. The city closed streets and allowed fans to watch on big screens.
The energy outside the arena makes previous playoff runs in this town seem quaint by comparison.
The way D.C.’s RSN has covered the Stanley Cup Final is wildly different from 20 years ago, the last time the Capitals made the Final. In 1998, the RSN, then known as Home Team Sports, did not have any original Caps programming before or after Stanley Cup Final games. The channel held the Orioles’ rights at the time and focused on baseball as soon as its Caps rights lapsed. The RSN virtually ignored the Caps’ run through the playoffs.
This year, NBC Sports Washington does not have the rights to either the Orioles or the Nationals, who came to town in 2005, so it has been able to focus all of its energy on the Caps.
“We didn’t have any pre- and postgame shows; we didn’t have any of this type of stuff,” Laughlin said of 1998. “We’re blowing it out of the park with all of the different levels we’re doing. There’s nothing left untold. There’s no storyline that we don’t try to give to our fans and our people. We want to enjoy the fan experience.”
NBC Sports Washington had the rights to the Caps’ first-round playoff series against the Blue Jackets, a series Washington won in six games. After Game 5, Phillips saw how much support the team was getting.
“You saw a sea of red in the streets that day,” Phillips said. “That’s when a lightbulb went off in our head. You know what? We have to be here. We have to cover the fans.”
Phillips believes the popularity around the outside set provides a template for next regular season, even when crowds are smaller and not as avid. Last season, NBC Sports Washington produced more pregame and postgame shows from the arena, putting a set on the concourse. Weather permitting, Phillips wants to produce shows from a set on F Street, too.
“I want to do more shows from the arena,” he said. “Studios are great. But you can do studio from anywhere. You want to be able to show viewers what’s going on at the arena. We want to make sure our talent is front-and-center, helping to tell the story. You’ll see us out here a lot more going forward. It’s a great look for television. But the best part is that you’re connecting with fans. That’s what we’re all about.”