In a few months, we'll know if the supposedly uncensored peek behind the curtain that is HBO's Penguins/Capitals 24/7 is a success. I've thought that the uncensored route would be a fantastic marketing tool for a while now, and now that it's coming to fruition, I'm very curious to see how much the league paints over the not-so-family-friendly parts. Since this is HBO, let's assume that it's put together well, promoted smartly, and draws a good audience -- and all of this leads to HBO deciding to work with the NHL again, either through another 24/7 series or perhaps its own series such as Hard Knocks.
Where do we go from there? Kicking it off with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals makes sense, especially with the whole Winter Classic aspect of it. It'll generate the most eyeballs, get the most mainstream media hype, and offer the most recognizable names and faces for the casual sports fan. Plus, as HBO has already said, you have three stories to edit together: the Pens, the Caps, and the actual field preparation for the Classic.
Do you go with the Winter Classic again? If it works, it works -- right? Perhaps it's not the most creative thing to do, but the Winter Classic seems to be the showcase point for the NHL, at least until the Stanley Cup Final. And unlike the Cup Final, the league can pick the teams it wants. While the Classic might have been getting a little stale for the die-hard fan, this offers a new reason to get interested in it, both for the hockey nut and for the casual sports fan. It's a safe standby.
After that, though, a variety of options are available. Much like the Winter Classic itself, traditional thought points to big-market teams and rivalries. But I think there's actually a few different avenues we can go with here:
The cool thing about this idea is that it's flexible from year to year. If a non-traditional market becomes involved in a heated rivalry -- think Colorado Avalanche/Detroit Red Wings circa the late 1990s -- not only does this promote the sport in different market, it puts the spotlight on teams and players that normally wouldn't get this level of exposure. This could solidify a market's relationship with a team and open the game to a whole bunch of new viewers.
-Follow the trade deadline: I've suggested this before in a few different forums, but with HBO behind the project, I think it could be done far better than if the NHL Network or Versus produced the piece. Using the same behind-the-scenes approach, the three crews could follow a contending team that's looking to make a move, a struggling team that's looking to shed salary, and a veteran player that everyone knows will be traded. This will have to be decided most likely in January, but it'd show the different sides of the trade war rooms and the actual emotions of a player getting moved.
-Follow the Stanley Cup Final: Here's a different way to use the broadcast for promotion. Rather than looking at the middle of the season, focus on the very end and make the entire program be about the Stanley Cup Final. Set it to air right before the regular season kicks off for maximum marketing synergy and give us all the blood, sweat, and tears of both sides of the room. With the stakes this high, you know there will be great moments, from motivational speeches to Cup partying to the overwhelming disappointment in the visitor locker room.
ESPN had two series of The Season that followed hockey, first with the Detroit Red Wings and second with the Colorado Avalanche. These did offer in-depth and personal looks, but it tracked the entire season and had the limitations of basic cable censors. By focusing on more specific events or moments and lifting the censors, it can go far beyond the periphery that ESPN did.
Of course, 24/7 has to be a success first. But given HBO's track record, I don't think it's too early to start thinking about other ideas.