Time to End NHL Preseason Blackouts

Imagine this scenario for a moment. You are a fan of a team and you live 2,000 miles or more away from their home rink. Let’s say you are a Blue Jackets’ fan living in Phoenix, Arizona for this example.

In normal circumstances during the regular season, you would be able to watch the Blue Jackets play their games from where you live in Phoenix. This assumes you are subscribed to the appropriate service to watch out of network games. For this season, that is ESPN+. Of course the exception would be if the Blue Jackets play the Arizona Coyotes. In that case, you would have to watch locally on Bally Sports Arizona. But that’s just two games per season. You can handle that.

But what about preseason games? Can a Blue Jackets’ fan in Phoenix watch their team play exhibition games? It’s 2021 and amazingly, the answer is no.

Gary Bettman
It’s 2021 and the NHL utilizes blackouts in the preseason. (Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

Wait, what? How is that possible? They can watch most every regular season game but can’t watch their preseason games? That’s the way it is and it makes absolutely no sense. It’s time to put an end to these shenanigans once and for all.

The Current State of NHL Preseason Blackouts

Let’s refresh ourselves on how blackouts work. As we mentioned above during the regular season, a Blue Jackets’ fan can watch most every regular season game while living in Phoenix since the fan lives outside the Blue Jackets’ market.

If that fan lived in the Blue Jackets’ market, they would be subjected to blackout on ESPN+ and would have to watch the local broadcast on Bally Sports Ohio. This is standard for any team during the season if a fan lives in the market of their team.

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But get this. NHL Preseason Games have the opposite effect from regular season games. If the game is not being broadcast on TV somewhere (like TNT, ESPN or one of the regional TV networks), the games will only be shown online usually on the team’s website.

Here’s where the opposite effect happens. Only in-market fans have access to these online streams of preseason games. So that Blue Jackets’ fan in Phoenix. Yeah they are blacked out from watching their team for an exhibition game. Isn’t that crazy?

The only markets that have access to these streams are of course the home team and then their opponent for that night. In that case, the road team will also stream the game on their website, but it will usually be the home team’s feed and broadcasters. Just as an example, when the Blue Jackets played the Penguins this past week, those who watched the stream from Columbus watched the Penguins feed with their radio broadcasters. That’s a little awkward, eh?

But seriously, what are doing here? This is the preseason for goodness sakes. Why are we being so strict on access to exhibition games especially if many of these games aren’t even on TV?

The reality of the situation is that blackouts are there for a reason in sports. This is to protect the local broadcast rightsholders in their local market. That’s understandable. Our Kyle Gipe did a great job explaining why blackouts do exist. You can read the full article below.

Related: NHL TV Blackouts & Why They Exist

But again, that’s for the regular season when the games count in the standings. We’re talking about preseason games. There’s no reason that these games should be blacked out in cases where there is no TV broadcast and are only available online on the team’s website. I thought our goal here was to grow the game, not restrict it.

Yes, Preseason Games Matter

These exhibition games do matter for fans. This is the time they get to see prospects play in meaningful games. They could be competing for a roster spot on opening night. Too bad out of market fans can’t see that.

This may seem small to some people but there’s a lot of fans that are upset at the preseason blackout. Some fans might not be even able to watch hockey at all because of how restricted access to games are. This is especially true for new fans to the game that might not be aware of blackouts and the rules surrounding them.

If I’m a new fan and I can’t find a game to watch, why should I care about your sport? I’ve had fans ask this exact question to me when discussing this topic. It’s a fair question. If you want to grow the game and get more fans involved, make your games more accessible.

The preseason is the perfect opportunity to showcase your teams and your talent. It’s also the perfect chance to introduce new fans to the game and perhaps go over rules of the game and other important aspects that a new fan would appreciate hearing. Side note: the job the media is doing in Seattle to introduce new fans to the game is exactly what we need. We need more of that. That’s incredible work being done by them to explain even the simplest of rules. It’s simple for us. It’s brand new for many. Let’s celebrate that, not trash that.

But no, the NHL is stuck in an old school model where we have to restrict exhibition games from being watched. If I’m a new fan, I’d feel betrayed. I want to watch your sport but you won’t allow me to because of a needless rule.

Allowing fans to watch games is a good thing. It brings more exposure to the game and it could bring in new fans since the game is more accessible. That could have positive downstream effects as well for the league having more fans watching your product.

The Bottom Line

It’s real simple actually. The bottom line is stop restricting access to games especially exhibition games. The time has come to free the fans. They’re the reason for everything to start with. Perhaps it’s time to reward their loyalty. They’ve endured a lot and remain committed to the NHL even despite things that have happened.

Lifting blackouts in the preseason is long overdue. Let’s put an end to this madness and let’s start growing the game once and for all. Everyone would benefit from it.