Hockey Lives On, but for how long?
A little over 5 years after ESPN refused to match OLN's bid for NHL TV rights and welcomed the fledgling channel as a competitor, Mediaweek is reporting that the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network may be poised to enter a bidding war for the league's next television deal.
Daniel, you and I grew up with hockey on ESPN, specifically spending all of our high school years hanging out and watching ESPN National Hockey Night, NHL2Night and playoff double headers on the network. Increasingly, however, people have made the argument that times have changed and that an ESPN deal can't really do anything more for the league than what the NHL can already accomplish with its current TV package. So which is it? Does the league need to recapture its hey day of ESPN coverage, or is it better off simply staying the course with VERSUS and NBC?
The NHL needs to return to ESPN for multiple reasons. First, double headers on ESPN 2 will inevitably snare random fans. I chose and followed a hockey team, because having an affiliation with each of the major 4 sports was a must. However, I became a HOCKEY fan by watching Wednesday night double headers. I'd bust open cans of sliced pineapple and watch hockey for 6 hours. Then, I'd copy your biology homework for the next day. Most weekday nights, I waited earnestly for NHL2Night so I could learn more about the game and what was happening outside of the Ducks. Although, sometimes I just wanted to hear what Barry Melrose thought about Anaheim. It was that type of thorough coverage that really exposed me to the sport.
More and more people are limiting their perspectives on what is noteworthy to hear based on where they hear it. If it's on CNN, they think it's important. The same is true for sports. Ever since ESPN has started leaning towards the SEC, that conference's rankings have gone up and with it their ability to recruit top talent. I'm not saying it's drastically different than it was before, but ESPN supporting them has given them a slight advantage. ESPN saturates their market with so much promotion that random fans will inevitably be drawn in.
More importantly, ESPN offers the type of coverage that has mass appeal. Yeah, I have NHL Live, but how many people have the NHL network? ESPN is the leading sports broadcaster. Football is king in the U.S. sports market, and Monday Night Football is classically it's crown jewel. Where is Monday Night Football? ESPN. They know how to take maintain and promote their products. Am I in favor of ESPN gaining an even larger monopoly on sports broadcasting? Not particularly. But, I'm more frustrated with my lack of regular double headers and awful round table discussions on NHL Network and VERSUS.
I'm the first person to say that the NHL doesn't need to change itself to attract fans. If anything, one of the most appealing things about hockey is that it has always attracted a fairly nuanced fan base. Let's be real. Hockey fans are different from any other sports fan. But this isn't about that. This is about giving us better access to the sport we love. VERSUS is never going to get off the ground to the point that what they can do for hockey outdistances what ESPN can do for hockey. The sport grew under the VERSUS umbrella, but probably due more to a good on ice product than VERSUS abilities as a network, but it's time to move on and give us what we knew and loved.
Well, I won't resort to sweeping statements on what ESPN has done or can do. I don't have the numbers or want them. What I will say is that the NHL won't move past its image as a second-rate sport until it stops rubbing elbows with second-rate television partners.
Maybe it isn't as bad as Sportschannel America, but when hockey games are filled with advertisements for WEC MMA (which I'm pretty sure is UFC for little people), rodeos and cycling, you're pretty sure you're watching a channel that doesn't see heavy rotation in a Vegas sportsbook. And when playoff games get pre-empted for Rolex sponsored horse races, it SCREAMS of NBC's fall from grace since the end of NBA on NBC, and generally, since its programming went to hell (see the premiere of Conan tomorrow on TBS).
That second-rate image (and second-rate treatment) rubs off on the NHL. They're in a marriage of convenience right now. And I'm sure they told themselves that ESPN was once a second-rate network, but so was Sportschannel America . . . and it stayed that way. How many times is the NHL gonna play starter wife before it finds its self respect?
Again, though, that's not to say there isn't a great way to market the sport while on NBC/VERSUS. The upcoming Winter Classic 24/7 on HBO and the NHL's efforts to provide its own news coverage and web coverage is a great example of how they're defying the traditional model. However, as far as perception, I would rather the NHL become the second rate sport on a major network-- the Rolex sponsored horse race to someone's SEC game on ESPN2, if you will --than continue to be the flagship sport on a network that I don't watch except for its NHL coverage. Forget being a big fish in a small pond, the league is currently a whale in a fishbowl.
Don't get me wrong. The NHL might be a guppy on ESPN-- it always was --but it got more coverage as the least of the network's four major sports than it has as the most substantial of VERSUS' niche sports. This marriage of convenience needs to end, and soon.