NHL Blacking Out Ranger Games
The New York Rangers will finally open the partially renovated Madison Square Garden tonight, but chances are you won't get to see it. Despite the existence of what seems like a substantial Ranger fandom in the Capital Region, Ranger games, including tonight's home opener (according to the Times Union), are routinely blacked out. So unless you're lucky enough to have NHL Center Ice, and the money it costs to buy such a package, you're left watching the Sabres, Islanders, Devils, Long Island High School Football or whatever else makes it to MSG over the Broadway Blue Shirts.
In the interest of openness, let me say this: I'm a Ranger fan. I've been one since I was five years old and watched, with my father, as the Rangers lifted the cup for the first time in fifty-four years. The magic of that cup run: the guarantee by Messier in the Conference Finals; Mathieu; Richter stoning Bure on the penalty shot in game four; Leetch's goal in game seven; it all came together and coalesced into what is, even to this day, a passion for the game of hockey and the Rangers. It's the beauty of the sport; one playoff season, one game, can create life-long fans.
Unfortunately, as a life-long hockey fan, a life-long Ranger fan and a life-long member of the Capital Region I've lived in a consistent state of disappointment - and no, not just because of the Rangers' on-ice play. Let's face it; being a Ranger fan in the greater Albany area is hard. Too many times the Rangers are pre-empted by any number of other teams or events, despite the fact that we live in what is a New York market for football, basketball, baseball, and everything else, even curling - okay there may not be a national television contract for professional curling, but there should be, and if there was we'd be in their New York market. Imagine for a second the Brooklyn Broom Devils of the National Curling League (NCL) on MSG - that would be down right amazing.
But I digress. My point is thus: The Rangers aren't this area's primary hockey team and we simply don't get enough of the games on television. Far too many times the Rangers are without coverage on the local sports networks while the Sabres have plenty, despite what appears, at least to me, to be contrary demographics. We put an open survey out on the Facebook and Twitter pages of 1045theteam.com, asking members of the Capital Region to comment on what kind of fan they are. Of the responses we received, nearly half identified themselves as Ranger faithful. The others were a mix of Bruin, Devil, Sabre, Islander, Hurricane and Canadien responses, with the Bruins coming in second. Now, in all honesty we had a ridiculously small sample size and the fact that I’m drawing any conclusions off of such a survey is absurd enough to make any high school statistics teacher want to go across my knuckles with a yardstick, but take it for what it is: It’s not Gospel, it’s not proof. It’s just another suggestion that this area is comprised of mostly Ranger fans.
When asked why the Sabres are given precedent over the Rangers despite the area's demographics, Time Warner Cable said in a statement to 1045theteam.com:
“Time Warner Cable does not make the decisions about which NHL games are carried in our market. Time Warner Cable is more of a delivery mechanism once games are selected by the content provider (in the case of NHL games: NBC, Versus, MSG and NHL Network). Games are selected and sent to us based on the individual channel’s rights/priorities and in adherence with blackout rules and NHL guidelines and restrictions.”
Essentially, the decision is not theirs. The NHL determines which markets belong to which teams and sets restrictions, effectively creating the blackout system. These guidelines are then given to the networks, which make their schedule accordingly and notify the cable service provider which games they’ll be covering. In English? According to Time Warner Cable, it’s the NHL’s fault. On the subject, the NHL had these words to say:
Albany is part of the Sabres market as well as the Rangers, Devils & Islanders. Since it is considered Sabres territory, the Rangers are only permitted to air 50 of their games in the Albany area (NJD & NYI are allotted 41 games) during the season on MSG/MSG+. However, all of the Rangers/Devils/Islanders games are available in the Center Ice in that area.
They key part of that sentence is "Sabre territory." Taking what you can from both Time Warner's and the NHL's comments you can deduce this: Basically, the NHL is saying that this market, despite it's geographic distance from Buffalo versus its relative closeness to New York City, is a Buffalo market. The Capital Region is the territory of the Buffalo Sabres, therefore, the Sabres are the team to be featured on both MSG and MSG+, leaving the Rangers, Islanders and Devils fighting for scraps on the two networks. To me, it's a baffling and incredibly disappointing decision. Despite the fact that the NFL, NBA and MLB considers our area the property of New York City, and despite the fact that this area is largely populated with Ranger fans, the NHL gives us Buffalo. Does that bother anyone else? Does it baffle anyone else? It just seems wrong to me, and is, undoubtedly, a decision that makes it harder and harder to be an NHL fan.
My point is thus: As a hockey fan I want to be able to immerse myself in my team’s season. I want to watch their games; I want to experience the thrill of their hockey as much as possible. A power-play goal - exceedingly rare as they are with the Rangers - means a lot more when instead of reading about it in a box score re-cap, I'm hearing Sam Rosen call it. Like this:
"It's a power play goal!" Is there anything better than that? Not for my money. Too bad my money is being spent on Sabre home games. I'm sure Ranger die-hards across the area will agree with me that it's frustrating. But forgetting die-hards for a second, what about the casual fans who can't find their team's games? What about those fans, the ones who's continued and hopefully increasing support for the game is what will grow the sport? How can the NHL expect to expand their reach when they ignore their fan bases?
And how can they not expect to alienate even their most ardent and loyal fans when, instead of watching their favorite team skate against an arch-rival, they’re watching the Buffalo Sabres against the Columbus Blue Jackets, or as was the case last week, they’re watching Washington State vs. Oregon State in a Pac-12 football battle that could have been called the “Who Honestly Cares Bowl (Coming soon to a Bowl Season near you, sponsored by Zune)?” That Washington State vs. Oregon State battle for the right to be called a little less mediocre than most of us thought but still remain entirely irrelevant was on not one, but BOTH MSG CHANNELS, by the way. Imagine the look for horror that washed across my face when, instead of turning on a Ranger-Oiler game, I got awful Pac-10 football on MSG. Then, expecting the Rangers to simply be on the other channel, I eagerly flipped to find what? THE SAME PAC-12 FOOTBALL! AHHH! WHAT KIND OF BAIT-AND-SWITCH PURGATORY IS THIS?!
I need a minute.
Okay I'm back. Perhaps it’s me. I mean, how many times can Charlie Brown try and kick that ball before realizing that Lucy’s going to do what Lucy does? How many times can I think through things logically and decide that because I’m a five hour drive from Buffalo and a just under three hour drive from Manhattan, and because I live in a New York City market for every other major sport, that there’s no possible way that I’ll be getting Sabres-Coyotes when there’s a Ranger game on? How many times can I assume that Pac-12 football won't pre-empt my team? How many times can I reach for the remote expecting Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti and get the not so dulcet tones of Rick Jeanneret?
Me? A lot. I’m a hockey die-hard, I’ll keep trying to kick that ball as long as Lucy holds it, no matter how many times she betrays my confidence. But how many times will you? How many times will your neighbors? How many blackouts does it take to lose a fan? How many more times can you be denied your team before you just ignore the good that the NHL is doing – like the fact that the game is more exciting than ever, or the fact that they’ve created must watch TV in the NHL Winter classic – and just say ‘To hell with it!’
Look, let’s be honest, I’m not really coming at this problem with a ton of journalistic objectivity, and maybe I am blowing it out of proportion. But what are we as fans without the ability to watch our team? I know first hand that one great game, one great goal, one great save can spark a passion with this game that’ll keep you coming back for more. So why does the NHL insist on keeping that opportunity from the slew of Ranger fans that, in this writer's most biased of opinions, dominates the Capital Region? It just doesn’t seem thought out to me.
I must admit Capital Region, I’m not quite sure how to end this article. As you might be able to tell I’ve gone through an array of emotions while writing this: nostalgic, playful, neutral, angry, ect, and I just don’t know where to go now. But I guess I’m just kind of despondent, which is the way the NHL leaves me some times. I love the game, and I love the Rangers, when I get to see them; but the fact that I don’t, that I probably won’t tonight when they open the Garden just a two hour train ride from my house, is just kind of sad. But whatever, I’ll just go watch Action Sports World Tour: Seattle, which you can find on MSG+ instead of the Ranger game. Awesome...just awesome. Fix it, NHL. We sat through your lockout, you owe us that much.
Follow me on Twitter @JoeBianchino