With NHL Set To Return, Mobile Production Shifts into High Gear

When the sound of skates gliding on NHL ice resumes this month, so will the echo of tires hitting the pavement as remote-production providers mobilize trucks for NHL rightsholders across North America.

After more than 16 pro-hockey–less weeks and 510 canceled games, the NHL Players Association is expected to ratify a 10-year deal by Saturday night, with live NHL hockey returning to television on Jan. 19. Although the official schedule will not be released until ratification is complete, the effort to muster mobile-production facilities for NHL rightsholding networks is already well under way.

“As soon as we heard things were about to get settled, we looked at our schedule and moved things around to free up the trucks that are usually on hockey packages,” says Mike Fernander, president/GM of NEP, which services NBC Sports Group’s national package as well as several RSN packages. “We are in pretty good shape to cover all this. You may not know the exact location for the NBC games, but you know the broadcast schedule and can go from there.”

The Juggling Act
Once the schedule is released — likely by Sunday — truck providers will snap into action, assigning trucks for specific dates and checking for holes in their plans. With a condensed schedule expected to add about one game per week for each team, there won’t always be enough trucks to go around, forcing many mobile-production vendors to juggle trucks within a region or sub-out dates to competitors.

“Within less than 48 hours of the schedule’s release, all of our trucks will be booked for every single [NHL game] possible, as well as all NBA and Major League Baseball dates that are already booked,” says Phil Garvin, president/founder/co-owner, Mobile TV Group. “And then we will start looking at the holes. If a truck is booked already in a market, then we look at the closest trucks we have to that market, and then we look at [subbing trucks].”

Although more games each week will complicate matters for Garvin and company, the new schedule, which will feature only intra-conference games, will allow them to cover more games per week by shifting trucks among near-by markets. Nonetheless, truck companies’ scheduling departments will have to get creative.

“The schedule is not out, and we’re at less than a week away to put it all together,” says Mary Ellen Carlyle, SVP/GM of Dome Productions, which provides trucks to SportsNet, TSN, and RDS in Canada. “So the worst job to have right now is our truck and crew schedulers, and there’s not much they can do right now. They’ve got lots of ideas in place, and they have started guessing, but that’s about it.”

Regionals Are Hit the Hardest
Although national NHL television packages took a major hit with the cancellation of the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game, RSNs that have suffered the most because their entire fall programming lineups are often built around live NHL and NBA games.

Few truck providers were hit harder by the lockout than Mobile TV Group, whose contracts with regional sports networks cover 13 of the 30 NHL franchises.

“I think we are the biggest loser [during the lockout] and the biggest winner when they come back in situations like this,” says Garvin. “As successful and blessed as Mobile TV Group is normally, I’m guessing that we suffer the most in cases like this because we have so many NHL teams.”

Game Creek Video, which services the New York Rangers and Islanders, New Jersey Devils, and Buffalo Sabres on MSG and MSG Plus in the New York/New Jersey market, also took a serious hit from the NHL lockout. However, the company found solace in the political game: trucks that would normally be covering hockey were booked for debates, the presidential election, acceptance speeches, and, on Jan. 21, the inauguration.

With elections in the rearview mirror, the NHL couldn’t have returned at a better time for Game Creek. “It’s basically the same drill this year, so I don’t anticipate that we will have any problems covering our home feeds,” says President Pat Sullivan. “But we will be scrambling a little bit more for visiting feeds at our exclusive venues and will work with some of our competitors to fill those dates. But, just like last year, even though we are competitors, we will all huddle together and make sure that we are covering each other’s stuff as best we can.”

Replacement Shows Are Hard To Find
Much like the national (notably, NBC Sports Network in the U.S. and TSN in Canada) and regional sports networks that have struggled to fill programming lineups after losing the gem of their fall-winter lineup, mobile-production companies have found alternatives tough to come by over the past four months.

“[Rebooking trucks] has been very tough since a lot of hockey is midweek work, when there isn’t much else going on,” says Fernander. “We got into some entertainment activity and maybe some college basketball, but nowhere near what we would need to offset the loss from hockey.”

The situation for truck vendors was further complicated by the fact that the NHL canceled chunks of games in two- or three-week segments, making it nearly impossible to rebook trucks on short notice.

“Any event that needs a large mobile unit is going to be booked way more in advance than a couple of weeks,” says Garvin. “There were some added college games here and there, but you’re still lucky to recover 10%-20% of that lost business. That’s just a cost of doing business, so you have to anticipate and put something away for a rainy day.”

Don’t Forget About the Crew
It’s not the just the trucks that will be doing more shows in less time, however. Freelance and on-staff engineering crews will be hopping from city to city on an even more hectic schedule than usual.

“The biggest complicating factor with the [condensed schedule] will be personnel and making sure that we keep our engineers as fresh as possible,” says Sullivan. “It is awfully rigorous to ask these guys to work 12-hour shows on back-to-back days.”

Carlyle notes, “I think our biggest challenge is the freelancers who have taken other work. We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to handle the ones that aren’t around. We also crew every venue, too. So that’s 22 people that you have to put in place [at each broadcast], and that’s going to be a challenge with the new schedule.”

Labor Peace, Finally
The past two years in pro-sports television have proved as tumultuous as any in recent memory, thanks to two lockouts and a narrowly avoided third with the NFL. But mobile-production providers can take solace in the fact that the worst is likely behind them.

“The good news is that all the major leagues are now set for several years in terms of [labor deals],” says Garvin. “In terms of the major leagues, it’s been very tough the past couple of years, but I think we are finally at that light at the end of the tunnel.”