The Suitor Tutor, Part 2: The ESPN Question
August 5, 2010 8 Comments
With the NHL nearing a new TV contact, a multi-part series, “The Suitor Tutor”, takes a look at the potential bidders for NHL hockey.
The Suitor: ESPN and, presumably, it’s corporate partner ABC.
The Numbers: The NHL signed a five-year, $600 million contract with Disney in 1998 to broadcast games from 1999-2004. ABC chose not to renew after ’04, and ESPN was outbid by VERSUS coming out of the lockout. They have profits in the untold hundreds of millions.
Stanley Cup Final
Stanley Cup Final
(Source: Andrew’s Dallas Stars Page)
The Story: There have been Hollywood divorces less tumultuous than the peering, immature relationship between ESPN and the NHL since 1992, when the league returned to the network after the ill-fated SportsChannel America experiment. ESPN built a network (ESPN2) on NHL games (and the highlight show, NHL2Night), then FOX tried to take the entire package away and use it to promote FX and FSN, then ESPN/ABC shelled out massive dough for said package, then ESPN slowly began lowering the number of games it showed year by year, especially after getting the NBA. Then ABC decided to ditch the league, while ESPN stayed. Then ESPN lowballed the league and the league left for VERSUS. Then Gary Bettman spent the next six years not-so-subtly pointing out that the NHL was mistreated by ESPN, and ESPN not-so-subtly pining for the league back.
Now, ESPN/ABC has a piece of everything but hockey. They own the rights to the NBA Finals and most of the playoffs, MLB and NFL regular season games, college football’s national championship game, most of the conference tournament’s in college hoops, and an unholy monopoly on American soccer.
But they don’t have hockey, and don’t think for a second that it doesn’t bug them. Look, everything that’s been said about ESPN has been said. Let’s not forget the following post from a long time ago about how ESPN nearly killed the NHL on TV:
Most importantly, as I’ve stated over and over again (and in this article), ESPN does not care about hockey as a television property. Yes, ESPN’s online coverage of the game is solid. But on the actual network, hockey is only there for it’s pompous talking heads to take a potshot at. That won’t change if we go back. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon knocked hockey when PTI was debuting when ESPN still had NHL coverage. There won’t be a fancy ESPN memo sent out if the league gets back on the airwaves saying, “Hey guys. Take it easy on hockey, eh?”
Though the VERSUS/OLN and NBC partnerships haven’t been ideal, they’ve given the league some measure of stability. Hockey fans know where the games are. NBC is going to keep the league through at least next season, as the Peacock has the Olympics, and the Olympics have NHL players. You see what I’m getting at here, right? By the end of the 2009-10 season (maybe by the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals) bidding will have begun again for NHL TV rights. ESPN will be interested, but VERSUS will get first shot. This time, it should be a first bid the league should jump at, instead of falling for the ESPN song and dance twice. Though it’d still be pretty rad to see hockey on FX and Spike TV, I get the sense that the league belongs at VERSUS.
That said, ESPN has done a little better with the NHL in recent years, but the improvements aren’t quite enough. Lets also not forget: ESPN may be developing a third network in the wake of failure for ESPNews and ESPN Classic. Could they want the NHL around to put programming on an ESPN3? I don’t think that prospect is worth it for us to accept a full-time relationship with the network again.
The Verdict: I think the NHL should consider a part-time relationship with ESPN, sharing some regular season and playoff games with VERSUS. But the league would be foolish to make ESPN the only game in town once again.