The NBA and NHL are multibillion-dollar operations whose biggest events of the year are massive logistical challenges, but at least do follow the same structure every year. The playoffs are arranged on short notice, with scheduling being dependent on what days arenas are available and concerns of television partners also holding a good amount of sway.
So, how is it that in 2018, neither league can figure out how to get it right?
The NBA, at least, has a clear philosophy of how it wants to schedule playoff games, which is to try to maximize the amount of time that people can spend watching basketball. The playoffs started on April 14 with a 3 p.m. game between the Spurs and Warriors, with games on that Saturday then starting every two and a half hours through Pelicans-Trail Blazers at 10:30 Eastern. A second quadrupleheader was played the next day, with games at 1:00, 3:30, 6:30, and 9:30.
On weeknights in the first round, typical start times would be 7:00, 8:00, and 9:30. Only one night – April 25 – featured any games with simultaneous starts, two at 7:00, two at 9:30 – and those late games were in Oklahoma City and Houston, so they were 8:30 starts local time, about as late as you can reasonably start an event on a Wednesday.
In the second round, the NBA has all games spaced by at least two hours, usually two and a half, a plan that meant a 6:00 start in Toronto for Game 2 of Cavaliers-Raptors on Thursday, and the same start time on Monday in Philadelphia for Game 4 of Celtics-76ers. While it’s inconvenient for people who work regular hours and want to watch the whole game, better to miss the start than the finish, although it’s also bonkers that Game 2 of Pelicans-Warriors on Tuesday night started at 10:30 Eastern – or 9:30 for fans back in New Orleans on a weeknight, ending after 1 a.m. on the East Coast and midnight in New Orleans.
Starting at 10:30 Eastern on a weeknight is as good for television ratings as it is for fans who have to wake up in the morning, but at least you can understand the NBA’s philosophy, while also asking why Cavaliers-Raptors was an 8:00 start on Tuesday night and Pelicans-Warriors couldn’t have started half an hour earlier at 7:00 local time.
The way the NHL handles the postseason, on the other hand, seems actively designed to prevent people from watching.
The Stanley Cup playoffs began on April 11, with games in Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, and Las Vegas – three different time zones. Those games started at 7:00 Eastern, 7:00 Eastern, and 10:00 Eastern. Why would you start a playoff game at 6:00 local time in Winnipeg? Who knows? Certainly not the NHL, which the following day had playoff games starting at 7:00, 7:00, 7:30, 9:30, and 10:30 Eastern. This is how you wind up as the major professional sports league whose playoff games air on the Golf Channel.
Tuesday night, with the schedule less busy in the second round, the NHL still had Capitals-Penguins starting at 7:30 and Predators-Jets starting at 8 Eastern. They at least managed to get it right for Thursday night, with Game 4 in each of those series, in the same cities – Pittsburgh and Winnipeg – starting at 7:00 and 9:30.
When they actually manage to get it right, it feels like an accident, but 7:00 and 9:30 Eastern are the correct times to be starting two playoff games on the same night, or 7:30 and 10:00 if one is on the West Coast. It should not be that hard to figure out that this is the way to maximize both prime-time viewership and actual watchability for anyone who’s not just a fan of one team, but – get this – wants to see as much playoff action as possible. When there are four games on a weeknight, go with every hour on the hour, starting at 7:00 Eastern. On a weekend, figure out how not to do what the NHL did on April 14, with starts at 3:00, 3:00, 8:00, and 10:30 Eastern… or the following day, when the games were 7:00, 7:30, 10:00, and 10:30.
Again, these are multibillion-dollar entities on their own with television networks paying them hand over fist for the rights to broadcast these games, which continue, somehow, to be scheduled in a way that almost always manages to be horrendously flawed, and leaves millions of people tired, cranky, or both all spring long.