The Best of Puck the Media: Our Case Against ESPN

(Welcome to the second edition of our retrospective.  This piece about ESPN’s treatment of the NHL still gets linked to, 8 months after its’ original posting.  We like to think it showed people that we weren’t messing around here.  We probably still haven’t convinced you.)

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.


2 Responses to The Best of Puck the Media: Our Case Against ESPN

  1. E says:

    Great article! I agree. There is absolutely no point for the NHL to return to ESPN. The coverage would be embarrasing. Versus should continue. I think their coverage has improved immensely over the first year. With NBC contract up in 2010, I would love to see the league to explore other options. I think the CW would be a great idea for the league. It is a young network looking for programming. It would give them the opportunity to grow and add sports programming.

    Also, with Jeremy Roenick retiring, is there any chance he will be the lead analyst in the NBC and Versus booth this year? I think it would be a great move for both networks to hire him. Eddie O is ok, but, JR has star power they need on the broadcast.

  2. scotty says:

    Good article I agree. I have been an NHL on ESPN supporter I guess you could say for a while. However I think part of that is because of the whole Game 7 issues we had last year. Versus only has itself, whereas ESPN has multiple platforms. However as mentioned before with the NBA on ESPN where is the room for hockey on it? Its a tough situation but I would like to see someone commit to growing the game. If its Versus, thats great. But I’d like to see the NHL work with Versus and help schedule playoff games to help Versus out then. So there would be no chance we get screwed and miss Game 7’s. Also one quick question, is it a guarantee that Versus will air an opening night doubleheader on the 1st. I know its a Thursday so I dunno if they will and any idea when the official tv schedule comes out?

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