Noo Yawk sports is back, baby, and for the next week or so all eyes in the nation’s largest media market will be trained on MSG Network.
For the first time since 1994, all four of the New York-area teams affiliated with the network have advanced to the playoffs, and the hometown RSN will be flooded with live coverage and expanded postgame shows. Repping the NBA are the Knicks, which tip off their 39th trip to the postseason Saturday evening in Cleveland. The last time the Knickerbockers won a playoff series was back in 2013, when Carmelo Anthony & Co. eliminated the Celtics in the first round.
MSG expects to get even more milage out of its three metro-area NHL teams, as the Rangers, Islanders and New Jersey Devils will lace up their skates next week. After missing the playoffs a year ago, the Isles open their series in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes, which on Thursday beat out the Devils for the Metro Division title with a 6-4 win over Florida.
In advance of what is expected to be a defensive battle, the ‘Canes are listed as -190 favorites over the Isles. The puck drops on the best-of-seven series Monday, April 17. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was in 2019, when Carolina swept its way to the Eastern Conference Final.
Meanwhile, in the latest chapter of the Hudson River rivalry, the Devils will host the Rangers in their playoff opener on April 18. This marks the seventh time the Broadway Blueshirts will square up with the Devils in the postseason; New York holds a 4-2 advantage over Newark, a record that includes their seven-game Eastern Conference Final victory in 1994. That same year, the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup Final in a seven-game set against Vancouver.
Times for both NHL games have yet to be determined.
Starting Monday, MSG will be teeming with playoff action, with live in-game coverage scheduled for every day of the week. And while the RSN can expect a big turnout from area hoops and hockey fans, it does have to share the road with national rights holders ESPN, TNT and TBS.
“We need to position ourselves against the national networks, because none of the games are exclusive to us,” said Kevin Marotta senior VP, marketing & content strategy, MSG Networks, in a phone interview. “So the marketing challenge there is, how do we differentiate ourselves? And part of that is to capitalize on the connection we have with our fans.”
To that end, MSG on Friday dropped its first playoff tune-in spot, a 60-second hype reel featuring stars from each of the four teams, as well as cameos from the booth and studio talent who call the action. Among the players highlighted in the promo are Julius Randle, Adam Fox, Dawson Mercer and a full complement of Islanders sporting their mid-‘90s Gorton’s Fisherman sweaters.
Superimposed over the all the dunks and goals is what amounts to the RSN’s thesis statement: “Only MSG Networks has been with you all season. Only MSG Networks knows that fans here are built different. And only MSG Networks has home coverage of what comes next.” As befits a spot designed to get viewers fired up for the postseason, the promo cuts back and forth to scenes of fans at the Garden erupting in celebratory cheers.
While diehards tend to stick with MSG when the playoffs roll around, the postseason is also a time when less dedicated viewers will look to renew their acquaintance with basketball and hockey. “There’s always going to be some casual fans that aren’t necessarily dedicated to our teams, but who are followers of sports in general,” Marotta said. “When those casual fans start to tune in, we want to be able to grab a bunch of them, rather than having them go off to the national telecasts.”
Ironically, it’s easy for casual fans to conflate MSG’s coverage with the nationally televised product, as so many of the pros on the network’s talent roster are associated with the Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery outlets. Mike Breen (“BANG!”), who has been calling NBA games for more than 30 years, is the voice of the Knicks on MSG and handles play-by-play for ESPN and ABC. His NBA backup, Kenny Albert, also serves as the Rangers’ local radio announcer and is the voice of TNT’s NHL coverage. Knicks studio analyst Monica McNutt served as a reporter during the 2022 NBA Finals, and is in heavy rotation on the ESPN studio shows SportsCenter, Around the Horn, First Take and NBA Today.
MSG’s on-air talent will pitch in on the viewer-acquisition front, as those with the most active social-media accounts are on a mission to bring more fans into the fold. And if the studio hosts’ online blasts aren’t enough to move the needle, long-suffering Knicks fanatics such as Ben Stiller, Jon Stewart and Tracy Morgan are always good for a whole bunch of engagement-heightening buzz via their respective Twitter accounts.
While MSG is going to be crammed with playoff action next week, Marotta expects there to be little overlap between games. Should the Knicks-Cavs bleed into a Rangers-Devils or Isles-‘Canes matchup, the NHL game in question will air on MSGSN or MSG2. Given that it’s been nearly 30 years since New Yorkers last experienced this sort of postseason overload, the prospect of having to juggle the schedule a bit isn’t exactly a burden for MSG.