The Suitor Tutor, Part 2: The ESPN Question

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.

The Ratings

ABC

Regular Season
2000 1.3
2001 1.1
2002 1.4
2003 1.1
2004 1.1

All-Star Game

2000 2.7
2001 1.7
2002 1.8
2003 1.7
2004 1.8

Stanley Cup Final
2000 3.7
2001 3.3
2002 3.6
2003 2.9
2004 2.6

ESPN
Regular Season
2001-02 0.49
2002-03 0.46
2003-04 0.47

Stanley Cup Final
1999 2.2
2000 1.6
2001 1.6
2002 2.5
2003 1.1
2004 1.0

ESPN2

Regular Season
2001-02 0.23
2002-03 0.23
2003-04 0.24

(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.

Exhale.

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.

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About stevelepore
Steve Lepore is the Managing Editor of Puck the Media. His work has been featured in The Hockey News. Feel free to contact him at stevemlepore@gmail.com

8 Responses to The Suitor Tutor, Part 2: The ESPN Question

  1. TiLoBrown says:

    OK, I took 2 things away from this. 1) Wooo NJ has the higest rated finals on network TV (we need ever win we can get lol). and 2) ESPNEWS is failing? That would explain the graphic change to make it look like the other networks, a change I do not like…

    I do think sharing between VS and ESPN would be the best if ESPN HAS to be in someway. VS gets Monday (or Wednesday if they dont want to go against MNF) games and ESPN (not ESPN2!) gets Tuesday games. As for the finals VS gets game 1, ESPN gets game 2, NBC how ever many they want.

  2. Mig says:

    What if the league split the East and West between ESPN and VS like the NFL splits the AFC and NFC between Fox and CBS? They could rotate annually who has the Winter classic and the Stanley Cup finals.

    • Josh says:

      I think they would probably do better to divide the nights of the week between networks. Like ESPN could do a game of the week on Thursday or something (counter to TNT which has the big basketball broadcast that night anyway) while Versus could stick with its usual schedule of Mondays and Tuesdays.

      The conference thing doesn’t work as well in hockey as in football because in football, it isn’t geographical. The NFC has most of the bigger markets (especially in the east), but the AFC does have teams in big markets too like the Jets and Patriots.

  3. DyHrdMET says:

    I think going back to ESPN for the 3rd time would be bad for the NHL. Each other time ESPN jumped in the picture, they had room on the schedule and something to gain. Now it’s a bit different. I’ve been seeing ESPN converting ESPN Classic into ESPN3 (the name they later used for their online service) as a prospect for some time now. But ESPN, with or without a 3rd channel, is overcrowded. The NHL would play behind the NFL, NBA, College Football, College Basketball, the X Games, MLB, and Tennis. Versus can offer top billing on the network. Think about how the playoffs would work, when the ratings are the highest. The NHL doesn’t need ESPN (in reality, it would be ESPN2 or ESPN Classic). It’s been pointed out how Versus/NBC (and any other cable networks that NBC has, if necessary) can get the job done.

    I can live with ESPN getting back in the act as long as Versus is the clear leader.

    But one point about the afternoon network game – I just don’t think it’s a good idea. In baseball, playing the Saturday game of the week is an old tradition with played in an outdoor stadium (where night and day matter). In hockey, night and day don’t matter, and the Sunday afternoon game doesn’t seem to either. It’s just not a good time for ratings. Let’s see if NBC makes a bold move and copies the CBC with primetime games (maybe Saturday night, maybe Sunday night, maybe some other night – of course some consideration to the west coast’s primetime). Or if NBC bows out until the Playoffs after the merge with Comcast (and Versus).

    • Josh says:

      Forget about Sunday nights. Sundays are one of the highest-rated nights of the week for television, and you just are not going to see primetime Sunday games on NBC. The only night of the week they’d even consider doing it is probably Saturday.

      • Cedric Baker says:

        Just one problem I have with NBC: their insistence on having Notre Dame football, a worthless property as it currently stands. This forces NBC to move it’s NHL schedule until New Year’s Day and the Winter Classic. If they didn’t have Notre Dame football, they could begin with the NHL Premiere Series in Europe and air Saturday night regional coverage using Versus announcers just like the CBC. But the reality is Notre Dame football gets in the way (especially when the Irish play night games, which eliminates the possibility of having Saturday night hockey).

  4. Wayne stuck in AL says:

    The NHL going back to The Worldwide Leader (TWL) would be like a battered wife reconciling with her abusive husband. Save for a handful of people, the NHL is a whipping boy for certain on-air personalities (I’m looking at you, Cowherd); furthermore, with an increasing presence of black performers on their “news” shows, hockey ain’t hip-hop (I’m looking at you Stuart Scott and Stan Verett).

  5. Patrick says:

    ESPN is bleeding money. They’ve lost money on the NBA and NASCAR deals and both properties, fresh from being given “The ESPN Treatment” are seeing steep declines in ratings and revenue. No offence but the NHL seems to be doing quite well despite this “help”.

    If I didn’t know better I’d think ESPN was a sports property cooler of sorts. Their new M.O. seems to be “acquire something at its peak”, screw it up and drive it into the ditch.

    I follow golf in addition to hockey and the two worst days of golf on TV are the two days when Chris Berman is hosting the US Open coverage (if you like obnoxious, loutish, moronic, and uninformed…Berman’s your guy). Think about some of ESPN/ABC’s “ideas”…do you (and American-based hockey fans) want the likes of Tony Kornheiser, Dennis Miller, etc. as a third man in the booth for hockey? Do you want Chris Berman hosting a Stanley Cup Final? This isn’t validation, it’s bringing the gong show where it isn’t wanted.

    I get that Bill Patrick isn’t exactly a “name” nor the most wildly engaging person on the planet, but he’s a capable host and does what he does. Ratings and market penetration have grown every year with Versus/NBC. Maybe there’s something to be said for letting the game be the thing.

    CBC doesn’t change the formula and somehow, it works. As they say…there’s your hint.

    Versus ratings are now better than what ESPN was getting. Why would you go back to a network that nets out lower ratings?

    ESPN is to sports what MTV is to music.

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