Lord Stanley's Cup will be handed out on the main broadcast network
Well, that was close.
NBC Sports narrowly avoided its worst-case scenario this June: a four-game sweep in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Game 4 was about as close as it gets, a 2-1 New York Rangers victory that included a late 3rd period puck just hanging out on the goal line behind Henrik Lundqvist, which would have tied the contest for the L.A. Kings, if not for a thinly built-up wall of ice preventing a cheap score.
Had Los Angeles closed the series Thursday, not only would NBC have missed out on a lengthy series full of ad sales, Lord Stanley's Trophy would have been handed out on NBC Sports Network — a cable channel that pulls in far fewer viewers than the broadcast network. That is not exactly ideal for a sport with an exposure problem.
Since 2006, two of the potential seven-game Stanley Cup have aired on NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus — generally understood as the home for the National Hockey League. But the NHL doesn't suffer from die-hard fans who seek cheap cable providers — it hurts from a lack of interest from the everyman. Of the so-called “Big 4” sports, hockey is way behind in American popularity.
The way that NBC handles the Stanley Cup Finals means 2-5 championship games run annually on NBC's broadcast channel. And actually, no Stanley Cup Final series has ever aired all its games on broadcast television. This is the fifth time in six years that NBCSN/Versus has aired Games 3-4.
That breakdown is also not going away anytime soon. As part of the new agreement (this is year three of 10), NBCSN will continue to carry at least two games every Final until 2021.
There are pluses and minuses to both telecasts options.
Game's 1 and 2 this series on the main broadcast net averaged 2.7 million more viewers than Game 3 earned on NBCSN. However, Game 2 on Saturday earned a huge boost with the Belmont Stakes lead-in on NBC, with a Triple Crown contender in California Chrome — so the number is a little skewed — but not by that much.
Still, the bonus explains why NBC didn't place Game 2 on its cable channel along with Game 3 — which otherwise sounds like a good compromise.
So the games on NBC surely pull better ratings than those on its cable affiliate, but it's the NBCSN ones that pay the bills in the form of cable subscription fees. NBCUniversal needs those games to justify its sports network.
Plus, in a way, there could be a modicum of prestige if the final NHL series of the season ended on your cable network, though hockey fans who do not have a package that includes the Sports Net would probably not see it that way. Nor would casual would-be observers who don't know where to find the clincher.
Either way, it could be worse. A Game 5 will take place on NBC Friday, and regardless of how the series shakes out, a champion will be crowned on the broadcast net. NBC and its sports subsidiary are currently wiping their brow from tonight while simultaneously hoping that the series doesn't end with the next game either.