NBC Sports Group Reflects on Successful NHL Stadium Series

We’re only two months into 2014, and this is already the biggest year for hockey in the history of the sport’s relationship with NBC.

The Coors Light Stadium Series returns this weekend as the Blackhawks host the Penguins at Chicago’s Solider Field (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC) in the first NHL regular-season game scheduled to air in primetime on NBC.

Jon Miller, president, programming for NBC Sports (left) and NHL COO John Collins have been thrilled with the Stadium Series' success.

Jon Miller (left), president, programming for NBC Sports, and NHL COO John Collins have been thrilled with the Stadium Series’ success.

From the Winter Classic (which tied as the highest-rated NHL regular-season game in nearly four decades) to three Stadium Series games (Rangers-Devils at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 26 was the most-watched non-regionalized NHL regular-season game ever on NBC) and the Olympics (Team USA’s win over the Russians was the largest audience to watch a hockey game of any kind on NBC), hockey has been reaching new heights in the cold early weeks of this new year.

But can you have too much of a good thing? So far, it seems no.

It’s the fifth of five U.S.-based outdoor NHL games this season, and ratings and sell-out crowds have defied the initial notion that too many outdoor games would water down the product, especially that of the league’s marquee event, the Winter Classic. NBC and the NHL is not blind to those concerns and will review the process carefully in the coming months before deciding what the plan for next season will be.

NHLStadium3

NBC Sports adds numerous camera elements on top of the typical complement it deploys for an NHL broadcast. Here, a robotic “rocker” camera gets closer shots along the glass.

“We’ve got to see how this plays out this year,” says Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “The NHL obviously is going to study it and see how it plays. We’ll look at the ratings, and we’ll look at where we all are, and I think we’ll all have a good sense of it.

“But, until you try something, you don’t know how it’s going to be, so it’s not worth guessing whether it’s the greatest thing ever or maybe we’ve gone too far. We’ll see, and, hopefully, it’s the greatest thing ever, and we continue to have some fun like this. But we’ll get to the right place.”

NBC has expressed a desire to continue the Stadium Series into the future. It’s simply a matter of striking the right balance.

“We would love to continue to do them going forward,” says John McGuinness, coordinating producer for NBC Sports’ Stadium Series coverage. “It might be one game too many or two games too many, especially when you have an All-Star Game next year. So, if you do a Winter Classic, an All-Star Game, and maybe two other outdoor games, that might be the best mix.”

NBC has brought jibs to all  Stadium Series venues, including at Yankee Stadium in January (pictured) and this weekend at Solider Field in Chicago.

NBC has brought jibs to all Stadium Series venues, including at Yankee Stadium in January (pictured) and this weekend at Solider Field in Chicago.

These outdoor games obviously present many unique but admittedly fun challenges for the NBC Sports Group production team. The network treats them like the major events that they are, vastly boosting its camera arsenal and on-site studio presence.

At Yankee Stadium in January, the network’s normal camera complement for an NBC Sunday game was supplemented with a jib, multiple in-net cameras (which are usually reserved for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Stanley Cup Finals), robotic “rockers” along the glass, additional RF cameras and microphones, multiple super-slo-mo cameras, and, of course, an aerial camera.

“One of my favorite things to do in an outdoor game is show a replay from an airplane,” smiles Flood. “Can’t do that indoors.”

McGuinness adds that audio is a tremendous challenge at these outdoor games due to the added media presence and the crowding of the spectrum.

All of NBC's broadcasts for the NHL Stadium Series, with the exception of the game in Los Angeles, was directed by NHL on NBC vet Jeff Simon.

All of NBC’s broadcasts for the NHL Stadium Series, with the exception of the game in Los Angeles, was directed by “NHL on NBC” vet Jeff Simon. In New York, the crew worked out of NEP Supershooters ND5.

“It’s much different than our regular game, which is one person up [in the booth] and one person down [between the benches],” says McGuinness. “Now you’re integrating studio operations with RF microphones, reporters that are roving with RF; Pierre [McGuire] is behind the glass. There are  always frequency bugaboos when the local media shows up and they haven’t given the league their frequency. There’s always a scramble around that. That’s incredibly important because, if you don’t have internal comms, you’re sort of dead.”

This year’s outdoor games have been flush with visual drama. A huge snowstorm blanketed Michigan Stadium, where a record-size hockey crowd braved the elements in what many are calling the greatest Winter Classic to date. Los Angeles — perhaps the most unusual of them all — displayed contrasting images of a sheet of ice next to a beach-volleyball pit. New York provided snow of its own and bitter-cold temperatures when it put the league on the big stage during Super Bowl Week.

“We root for snow,” says McGuinness. “It’s just like in football: Anytime you have weather, casual viewers are just drawn to it. It’s fantastic, and the same holds true for hockey.”

What the league and its network partner will decide to do in the future is still to be seen, but it’s hard to argue that, for everyone from the fan to the camera operator, outdoor hockey is a memorable experience.