Okay, Let’s Talk About This Like Adults: “How ESPN Nearly Destroyed the NHL on TV” or “Why the NHL Should Never Go Back to ESPN”


“Okay, Let’s Talk About This Like Adults” is a new, semi-regular feature (Which really should be the trigger words of the “Puck the Media Drinking Game”) in which we talk about actual factual serious issues concerning the NHL in the media.  Like what we really promised this blog would be about from the start, before it essentially became pictures of Lindsay Soto and Conan O’Brien.  We even stop using the royal “We” for a post.

A couple of posts this week have grabbed a lot of people’s attention, and mine as well – when I plucked them from their original sources.  First, there was VERSUS President Jamie Davis’ response to critics of the network, including NHLPA head Paul Kelly.  Then, there was last night’s breaking story from Al Strachan of CBC’s “Hotstove” segment of Hockey Night in Canada that ESPN and the NHL are talking reunion, with – as I said in the post – differing opinions of whom the World Wide Leader would replace: VERSUS or NBC.  CBC (and NBC) analyst Mike Milbury claimed NBC had an offer of another 1-year extension on the table, while columnist Scott Morrisonn asserted that NBC “wants nothing to do” with the NHL.  This is one of those rare cases where Milbury (an NBC employee) might actually have the better info.

This sort of led me back to a blog posting from a year and a half ago that I look at every so often.  It’s from the great Sports Media Watch blog.  It’s titled “How Disney Outfoxed the NHL” and it quotes quite a few articles from media columnists about the new negotiations between Disney, FOX and the league for TV rights back in 1998, when FOX and ESPN’s contracts were set to expire after next season.  It included this, via Sports Business Daily:

A 15% drop in playoff ratings ‘hasn’t soured Fox on the NHL,’ according to USA TODAY’s Rudy Martzke, who writes that with a two-year contract option starting in 2000, Fox ‘likely will opt for televising all Stanley Cup final games.’ In the current deal, Fox televises Games 1, 5 and 7, with ESPN carrying the rest. Fox Exec Producer Ed Goren said it’s ‘possible’ Fox could begin showing all the finals as early as next year [1999], as talks “are taking place.’ But ESPN spokesperson Mike Soltys implied that the network would like to keep the finals package until 2000, adding ‘We’re happy with this package as it stands.”

As Paulsen goes on to say “FOX wanted to do what no U.S. broadcast network has ever done — that is, broadcast the entire Stanley Cup Finals, giving it the credibility of the NBA Finals or World Series.”  

But that’s when Disney came in and sent the NHL on a path for TV rock bottom that it’s just beginning to crawl out of.

From the blog posting yet again:

In August 1998, Disney made a major bid for the NHL, offering to pay a combined $600 million for the broadcast and cable rights to the league — a massive increase over FOX’s $125 million deal. The danger of losing the rights to games on cable — and the danger of those games going to rivals Fox Sports Net and FX — led to Disney making the fairly controversial defensive move.

FOX had a week to make a counter-offer, but wanted to decide on which package to bid on: The cable rights or the broadcast ones.  See, what FOX wanted to do with the NHL was get all of the games.  Take the cable rights and make FX and FOX Sports Net into national brand names.  I’m a big VERSUS guy, but even I’ve gotta’ admit: I’d rather be on the network with “The Shield” than on the network with “Tapout”.

Unfortunately, the NHL’s Board of Governors, in their infinite wisdom, decided to ignore this, and took ABC’s offer.  Or what everyone thought was ABC’s offer.  As Paulsen reveals “Later, it was revealed that ESPN would pay all of the $600 Million for the deal and buy time on ABC (as in the current ESPN/ABC NBA deal).”  FOX ended up getting taken down by Disney in the end, when really the league should’ve found out who was paying for everything.  So the NHL decided to take the money, and stayed with ESPN, and moved it’s broadcast “coverage” to ABC.

I believe this sincerely: ABC hurt the league more than anything FOX did throughout it’s five years of airing what amounted to, at most, 19 combined regular season and playoff broadcast windows (NBC now airs a maximum of 25, FOX, in it’s heyday, about 20, but only because it was shut out of most of the Stanley Cup Finals, where as ABC and NBC got Games 3-7).  Because while FOX tinkered with the game, to the point – most said – of the league teetering on looking like a video game, ABC did something even worse.  They basically ignored the sport.

In it’s first year – whereas FOX had the whole “Same Game, New Attitude” theory – they trusted ESPN to promoting the games, with little or no ad time on the actual network.  Lotsa dorky hockey fans enjoyed watching “Whose Line is it Anyway?” on Thursdays.  We might’ve liked to have been reminded that there was a hockey game on Saturday.

But hey, at least ESPN would stand by us and try to grow the game.  Oh well, they did until they finally won the rights to the NBA cable package (and broadcast, but that largely unaffected the NHL’s minimal ABC airtime) in 2002.  At that point, the network had lost it’s need for hockey.  Telecasts were shipped to ESPN2 for most of the season.  NHL2Night was cancelled in 2004.  By the time the Summer of ’04 rolled around, ESPN’s only offer to the league was a 60-game package of all-ESPN2 telecasts, and no NHL2Night, and in ’05 when the league was ready to return, it dropped to 40 games.

It was at this point that the NHL spurned ESPN for VERSUS (then OLN) and it’s $70 million and 54-game package.  You know what, I’d do it again, and I guarantee you Bettman would do it again.  It was 2 games a week, in a regular timeslot.  You and I both know that ESPN couldn’t guarantee the same, with basketball and football and baseball crowding both ESPN and ESPN 2’s schedules.  Besides, at this point, who knows if that’d even be the case?  As I’ve said many times, if the NHL went back to the ESPN Conglomerate, they’d “experiment” with airing games on ESPN Classic, perhaps even ESPNU.

In the end, as Paulsen poses in the article, the NHL could be in this same situation on TV if they had gone with FOX’s offer.  But as he states:

all indications are that FOX would have more committed to the league than ESPN/ABC, glowing puck aside. FOX needed the NHL on cable, to help challenge ESPN (a feat FSN has not yet accomplished). Getting the rights to NHL games would have simultaneously weakened a pre-NBA ESPN/ESPN2, while helping to strengthen Fox Sports Net and FX. In order to help strengthen FSN and FX, FOX would have promoted NHL games far more than it had in previous years, and the NHL could very well have found itself in the same position it is in now with Versus — only, instead of being a big fish in a small pond, the league could have been a big fish in a big pond.

Yeah.  Is the NHL and it’s greedy owners partly to blame?  Absolutely.  But ESPN and ABC share much of the burden for putting the league where it is now.  First, by tricking FOX and the league to believing that the two networks were splitting the bids, so that FOX couldn’t match.  Second, and most importantly, by ignoring the sport on it’s networks once it acquired enough major properties to do so.

Going back to the original reason I wrote this post.  Jamie Davis and VERSUS want this league on it’s networks.  I think it should stay there.  I’m still in the camp that believes VERSUS can eventually carve itself a decent niche.  It recently drew 1 million viewers for a USC-Stanford game, what’s to say that the NHL can’t ride it’s positive momentum to the point where VERSUS – using this leverage as a way to get into a few million more homes – can’t average 1 million viewers a week for hockey coverage?  It’s not that crazy to think, that in 10 years, if the league keeps it’s current home, that ratings can double in the U.S.  

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.  

Now if only we could get Paul Kelly, the NHL’s players and coaches, and most of it’s fanbase to buy that as well.  Can’t always get what you want, I suppose.

8 Responses to Okay, Let’s Talk About This Like Adults: “How ESPN Nearly Destroyed the NHL on TV” or “Why the NHL Should Never Go Back to ESPN”

  1. dyhrdmet says:

    ESPN has so many properties today, how do you know they don’t already air the NHL?

    I just don’t see a time (except during the summer) where the NHL could get the type of billing on ESPN that it needs. What? try to fit it in on ESPN2 and ESPN Classic (maybe called ESPN3 in that scenerio, and maybe not yet in HD). Any league deserves better treatment than that. Any property on ESPN (except the NFL and eventually the BCS) has to compete with other ESPN properties for attention. The only good thing would be ESPN360.com (where available), but Versus and NHL Network could do that too. If Gary Thorne wants back in the NHL that bad, he should sign on with Versus.

  2. Bryan says:

    Amen, man. I still remember ESPN getting the NBA contract in 2002 and saying to myself that it’s the beginning of the end, that the NBA would not only cut into the NHL’s time, but end up putting hockey on the backburner. And that’s exactly what happened. I still say that if ESPN shoved the Stanley Cup Finals down our throats the way they did the NBA Finals or Euro 2008, hockey could have drawn quite the audience. Obviously, that never happened. Now, you have ESPN essentially boycotting hockey on its networks and giving it the most basic of coverage on its website. The only positive thing that would come out of a return to ESPN would be increased coverage on SportsCenter. To be honest, I’ll take Versus putting hockey on a pedestal and showing virtually every playoff game over the table scraps ESPN offered hockey back in the day.

  3. Keith says:

    Is there any reason why the NHL can’t have more than 1 cable network the games are on? MLB and NBA all have multiple cable networks thus the leagues have a minimum of 4 games on a given week. I would think that the NHL can still have Versus be the main cable home of hockey, who broadcasts the majority of the playoff games, like TNT does, while ESPN can have a night of games and use those games to cross promote with Versus, which would help bring more people to the network and hopefully show highlights of every game on Sportscenter. Meanwhile, NBC can still show its Sunday schedule, the Winter Classic and the Finals, though the Finals should have all the games so the Finals can be on one network. But good job with this post showing that the NHL shouldn’t jump at any offer to ESPN, who has hurt the league in the past.

  4. stevelepore says:

    @Keith: I agree, the NHL should be on two cable networks (HDNet didn’t really count, but did great work for a long time, and the NHL Network doesn’t count either). I’d love to see Spike TV or FX take a shot at the league, I think it really fits those network’s images.

    Or have NBC buy a stake in the league, air two nights a week on CNBC, keep a night for VERSUS, and air a Saturday night game on USA/MSNBC.

  5. Pingback: With The NHL On NBC Returning, We Imagine Four Alternate Scenarios For the NHL On National TV « Puck The Media

  6. Kyle The Sports Fanatic says:

    The NHL really cheated fox BIG TIME, and I mean BIG TIME in 1998 when they decided to go with ABC. Really, Fox did a good job reviiving the NHL after not really being on network TV since the 70’s (aside from that short stint ABC had from 92-94). Sure, maybe the glowing puck and cartoon robots were a little much, but can you blame them for trying? I mean what did ABC do? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Bettman only has himself to blame for this mess

  7. Dave Sullivan says:

    Just a minor correction: the deal negotiated in 2004 was always 40 games, never 60. It was clear where ESPN’s priorities were when they moved the World Cup Final to ESPN2, to make way for poker. Say what you will about Versus, they treat the NHL like it matters. I like their game coverage, I like their studio show, I don’t like their availability, and I don’t like that their only other sports properties are the IRL and a smattering of college football. To ESPN, hockey was just another property – and not an important one at that.

  8. Dave Sullivan says:

    Oh, and the Tour de France.

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