Why NBC Sports pulled the plug on Penguins' big-screen party

The Pittsburgh Penguins announced today that Game 3 of their Stanley Cup playoffs series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday will not be televised on the big screen outside Mellon Arena due to "a decision by NBC Sports." More to the point: "NBC Sports does not allow teams to show their broadcasts on arena screens."

Last season, during the Penguins' run to the finals, the big screen viewing parties drew thousands of fans who watched NBC games in lawn chairs and consumed their own food and (non-alcoholic, officially speaking) drinks. News that the NHL's broadcasting partner was canceling the party sparked outrage in the Penguins fan community; Seth Rorabaugh of Empty Netters captured the angst:

What a rotten decision by NBC. It makes sense. They want as many sets of eyes on their broadcast so they can brag about how it matched re-runs of "Herman's Head" on WGN. That way, they can justify whatever they charge Heineken to run those horrendous "beer closet" commercials.

Still, leave it to the Peacock to ruin not only hockey broadcasts in general with Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury slobbering all over each other in fake arguments in attempts to be edgy and "ESPNy," but they have to squash out something that was just so... right?

It won't end the tradition, as any game broadcast locally by FSN Pittsburgh will still be shown outside of Mellon. But the Penguins faithful are livid and mobilized, blitzing the NBC Sports corporate offices with complaints.

According to sources, NBC and the NHL have been in communication throughout the day after this news broke. NBC, however, told us that the decision to leave its games off the big screen is "set in stone."

There's really no way NBC doesn't come off like a petty killjoy in this situation, stomping on an admirable fan and community tradition for a corporate bottom line. But beyond the backlash, the network's decision speaks volumes about the tenuous economic realities for sports television and the razor-thing margin between ratings success and failure for the NHL.

From NBC's perspective, there's every reason not to want thousands of viewers in front of an arena big screen. In fact, the network intended to end the Penguins' viewing parties last postseason but failed to act before they surged in popularity.

NBC's revenue is derived from advertising. Advertisers pay for viewers. The sports viewership audience is already watered down thanks to sports bars and group viewings. The bottom line is that if a handful of the fans at Mellon have a television ratings box on their home sets, their watching the game at home is going to dramatically affect the NHL's ratings on NBC.

Yes, the margin is that thin for hockey's ratings success on television; that's why it takes Sidney Crosby against the Detroit Red Wings for the Cup or a game in a baseball stadium to make a significant impact. A significant potion of national NHL ratings come from the cities involved in the game being televised; even a city like Buffalo can move the ratings needle with its dedicated fan base.

That said: The local viewership numbers for the Penguins, even with fans watching a big screen and with a full arena, remain blockbuster.

Beyond ratings, NBC wants a captivated audience. It's not just about fans watching their team in the playoffs on the couch -- it's attempting to hook them to continue to watch from the couch after their team is eliminated. As NBC put it this afternoon: It's about converting local fans into national viewers.

While this theory runs contrary to decades of post-elimination fan apathy, it's something NBC believes in. And having those viewers' attention for Jay Leno and "Heroes" teasers doesn't hurt, either.

NBC said its decision is akin to the one made by the NFL when it cracked down on churches having Super Bowl viewing parties to maximize its audience. In the end, the No Fun League relented and allowed them; as long as they didn't charge for tickets and if "a television of the type commonly used at home" was being viewed.

(So maybe the solution is a "bring your own television" night at Mellon; all they'll need a satellite dish and one hell of a cable splicer.)

NBC's decision is a public-relations loser, but they know this; it's also a decision the network felt it had to make in order to maximize its investment in the NHL.

Whether the decision stands depends on the severity of the backlash. In the end, it's just another round in the tug-of-war between fan fervor and the business bummers in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Score this one for the suits; at least for the moment.

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