The Nashville Predators are in Washington tonight to play the Capitals, but as we noted yesterday, after playing in 203 consecutive games, wunderkind Alex Ovechkin won't be there to greet them.
Neither will any television cameras.
You see, as was pointed out earlier today by The Red Skate, one of the interesting wrinkles of the league's television contract with Versus allows the cable network to designate a number of its broadcasts as a "game of the week." That means the league has agreed that no other games will air in the U.S. during that designated time slot. In most cases except for one other night this season, the league has jiggered the schedule in order to make sure that no other games are scheduled to conflict with a Versus "game of the week."
Unfortunately, tonight is not one of those nights, and the folks at Versus have decided to feature the Flyers and the Thrashers in the 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. EDT time slot. Meanwhile, a couple of hundred miles away in Washington, the Capitals and Predators will play, but the television signal will never leave the building.
So what's the big idea? There's only one reason why broadcasters insist on blackouts, and that's because they want to funnel viewers to their product rather than allowing them the option to switch to something else. In theory, if hockey fans don't have any other option, they'll simply eat what's put on their plate. And tonight, that plate is Flyers and Thrashers.
Unfortunately, thanks to the league's success in promoting the NHL Center Ice package and NHL GameCenter Live, fans are becoming used to getting what they want when they want it. So while Versus will indeed have a window of exclusivity for their broadcast, NHL Center Ice subscribers will still be able to watch Tampa Bay at Toronto or Carolina at Montreal while Versus carries the Flyers and the Thrashers. That's according to NHLCI's published schedule, though those two games won't be available in HD.
So what's the bottom line? For me, blackouts are an artifact of a bygone era in sports television. And while Versus might experience a slight tick upward in its ratings for tonight's game, I have to wonder out loud if that increase won't come at the expense of angering a sliver of the league's most passionate fans.