The Panthers-Lightning Series’ Schedule Is Further Proof That the NHL Doesn’t Know How to Grow the Game

While no hockey fan would be naive enough to claim the sport is a power player in the North American landscape, the NHL Playoffs could change that. At the risk of breaking out the cliches, playoff hockey is fast, intense, and dramatic. If you can’t get sports fans interested in that product, you’ve got no shot.

Unfortunately, the NHL is doing its part to ensure hockey remains irrelevant. Just look at the scheduling of the Florida Panthers-Tampa Bay Lightning series.

While the league had a chance to tweak the schedule, it left the Florida-based series in direct competition with the Miami Heat’s trip to the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. That may seem like a small move in isolation, but, as any hockey fan can tell you, it’s just the latest instance of the NHL being unable to get out of its own way.

The NHL left the Panthers-Lightning series overlapping with Miami Heat games

Under most circumstances, sports schedules just appear. While a great deal of work goes in behind the scenes, fans only see the finished product. In the NHL, however, fans got a glimpse behind the curtain.

On Tuesday, May 17, two different playoff series will kick off in the Sunshine State. The Florida Panthers will host the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the NHL postseason, and, on the hardwood, the Miami Heat will meet the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

If that seems like less-than-ideal scheduling, you aren’t the only one to think that. The Panthers reportedly asked to move their home games so they wouldn’t be competing directly against the Heat. The NHL, however, didn’t play ball.

As Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald explained, TV rights are the complicating factor. ESPN chose to broadcast the New York Rangers series, which pushed the all-Florida affair to TNT. Since TNT will be carrying the NBA’s Western Conference Finals, the hockey games have to go head-to-head with the Heat and Celtics games.

With that being said, though, the NHL reportedly has the “right to overrule ESPN’s choice if there are arena conflicts or extenuating factors.” For whatever reason, though, it didn’t push the issue.

“The NHL ultimately sets the schedule, not ESPN,” a source told Jackson.

The NHL has a history of shooting itself in the foot, and this scheduling choice is another instance of short-sighted thinking

At the risk of trying to get inside the mind of Gary Bettman and company, their thought process was probably something along the lines of, “Why reschedule the series? Hockey fans will choose us over basketball.” While that may be true, it’s short-sighted and only further condemns the NHL to being the fourth-place challenger in a three-horse race.

The Panthers-Lightning series should be exactly what the NHL wants to promote. The Panthers are an exciting team capable of scoring four goals on any given night. Tampa may be suffering through some injuries, but it’s still the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and boasts elite talent. Add in an interstate rivalry and the fact that these are two high-quality teams from nontraditional markets, and the league should want everyone to pay attention to the series.

Instead, it’s pushed to TNT and condemned to competing with the Miami Heat. We all know how that will pan out.

To make things worse, this isn’t an isolated incident for the NHL. This is the league that has had three separate lockouts within the past 30 years. This is a league that left ESPN to air games on the Outdoor Life/Versus Network. This is the league that can’t seem to wrap its mind around the fact that skilled players, not goons, are what draw viewers in. This is the league that tried to convince John Scott, an enforcer-turned-cult hero, that he shouldn’t attend the All-Star Game because it would be a bad look.

The list can go on and on, but that should give you the general idea.

The NHL loves to trumpet how Gary Bettman has grown the game, expanding hockey into the southern and western United States. While that might be true, the sport is still a niche product. As laid out by Andrew Carp of Sports Business Journal, the league had a banner year in terms of viewership after moving to TNT, ABC, and ESPN. While that might sound great, the viewership increased to an average of 361,000 viewers per game. For reference, the 2021 NFL season averaged 17.1 million viewers per contest (h/t ESPN).

To break out another cliche, “A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.” Changing the cadence of the Panthers-Lightning series probably wouldn’t have made a difference in isolation, but it would have been a positive choice that showed the NHL was taking itself seriously. Instead, it will be another instance when the league simply couldn’t get out of its own way.

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