The jokes wrote themselves last season after Matt Beleskey scored in overtime of game five of the Western Conference Finals. The NHL was a game away from having an Anaheim-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final, and one could almost feel the puckering of the suits at NBC for what surely would undo a record setting run of ratings for hockey over the past several seasons thanks to revivals of the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
After all, the Ducks were one half of one of the most notoriously low rated Stanley Cup Finals in 2007 when they skunked the Ottawa Senators in five games in a series that featured a pair of early 90's expansion teams. Heck, if even Canada couldn't be bothered to care about the Senators in the Final beyond it being the Final, why should US hockey fans?
Never mind the fact that as Chicago rallied and dispatched the Ducks in game seven the rating was better than last year's game seven Conference Final overtime affair between the Hawks and Los Angeles Kings, as well as being the highest drawing non-Stanley Cup Final game in LA market history. People still seem to believe the idea that the Ducks don't draw, and one needn't look further than the 2015-16 NBC Sports Group television schedule released earlier this morning.
Anaheim has always been treated as somewhat of an exotic presence by NBC in their rare appearances over the years, with the outlet still stuck on Ryan Kesler talking points when the Ducks faced the Dallas Stars on March 1 and again in their second to last regular season game on April 8 last year. Invariably, the analysis begins with "Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are an amazing presence on the first line", and then questions turn to stock ones about goaltending and young defense.
Now that the franchise returned to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2007, has put up back to back 50+ win seasons, and claimed the Pacific Division three straight times in the regular season, one would think the national profile for the orange, gold, and black would be raised. Apparently not. Even with the defending champs themselves saying Anaheim was their toughest test.
The Ducks will be featured in four (4) NBCSN broadcasts this season; the second half of the 'Thanksgiving Showdown' when they host the Blackhawks on November 27; part of a 'Wednesday Nightcap' following the St. Louis Blues-Detroit Red Wings 'Wednesday Night Rivalry' on January 20; a trip to STAPLES Center on Tuesday, February 4; a 'Sunday Night Hockey' Honda Center meeting with the Kings. This is three fewer national broadcasts than the Ducks were featured on last season, according to Puck Daddy.
No Playoffs, No Problem For Other California Teams
After becoming the first defending Stanley Cup Champion to miss the playoffs since the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes, the Kings will be featured in 10 NBCSN broadcasts. The San Jose Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time since 02-03, and thanks to their Comcast Bay Area TV partnership (remember, the one that's so terrible it had Fear The Fin covering a relocation story last year) they'll make the most appearances of any Pacific franchise with 11. Get ready for even more Randy Hahn, "national broadcaster".
On one hand it's entirely understandable that the league wants to take advantage of a local partnership to get more west coast games on the schedule. After all, it's that same Comcast partnership that has made the Philadelphia Flyers one of the most hilariously over-represented teams on the broadcast schedule, which they are again this season with 16 NBCSN appearances and one NBC game. Television broadcasts are a major financial commitment to pull off, and despite the league doing well financially it still pales in comparison to the other three major North American sports.
At the same time though for a league that is so desirous of selling the super star story lines in the vein of Toews and Kane, the lack of major national showcases for Getzlaf and Perry is baffling. Of the Kings 10 broadcasts, six of them come away from STAPLES Center. What prevents NBC from picking up a couple of east coast road trips by Anaheim? Say the December 22 game against the Rangers, January 22 at the Washington Capitals, the January 26 trip to Boston, why not even February 9 at the Flyers?
Small Market Problems
One can say the Ducks aren't a draw on the national stage, but do they not draw because they're in Anaheim, or because Anaheim is only given a handful of national broadcasts every season? Getzlaf and Perry are a tailor-made superstar duo, American badass Ryan Kesler is locked in long term, and the defense has the kind of young names that easily parallel the early stages of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook et. all. Can NBC not sell the Ducks as worthy of the national hockey fan watching, or do they simply not want to?
General Manager Bob Murray mentioned during exit interviews that the Ducks finally cracked the middle third of the league in terms of revenues this past season, reminding that despite all the success of recent seasons Anaheim still remains a small market team. The Los Angeles media market is hardly a major player in national hockey ratings (Chicago-Tampa Bay outdrew the Los Angeles-New York Final viewership-wise), and the Ducks are unfortunately stuck as a subset of that.
Yet in looking at the NBA, a small market franchise like the Oklahoma City Thunder can move the needle on the national scale because the league has invested broadcast time in showcasing their superstars. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook command eyes because they're amongst the best in the game at their positions, and it doesn't matter that they play in OKC. Getzlaf and Perry have a championship between them and Perry has been league MVP, giving the Ducks duo a better pedigree than Durant and Westbrook- so why not present them as such?
More Greatness In Obscurity
For 2015-16 the Ducks will continue to be that great restaurant off the beaten path, the bar with the amazing cocktails that only few seem to have heard about, the underground sensation that delights those regulars lucky enough to be in the know. There's a certain charm in being the hip spot that only a few have heard about or can attend. The price of that obscurity is that one can expect the same general lack of depth in the national discussion about the team.
Expect more shoehorned comparisons to other teams with greater broadcast exposure, paint-by-numbers analysis extolling the virtues of the two to three major names, and the same circular questions. It's unfortunate that the league's national rights holder saw fit to slate the Western Conference Finalists with as many showcases as a Nashville Predators team that surprised in finishing second in the Central Division, but it's also not surprising.
Beleskey and General Manager Don Sweeney's Bruins will appear on three times as many NBC Sports Group broadcasts (12) as the Ducks this season, with as many appearances (4) on broadcast NBC as Anaheim gets on cable. Perhaps a potential tire fire makes for more entertaining television.
For the Ducks, they'll have to continue as one of the league's underexposed, under appreciated best.
Follow Managing Editor Eric Evelhoch on Twitter: @EricTheHawk