The Suitor Tutor, Part 5: The Glorious Conclusion, and Our Suggestion For Where the NHL Should Go Next on TV

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.

Before we start, a thank you for reading this entire series.  The numbers for the site have been very good for a niche inside a niche blog in August. Perhaps its the Kovalchuk nonsense that’s kept you into the sport when you usually would’ve strayed to other activities, or maybe you just wanna be pals. Whatever the case, your readership is appreciated.  Thank you.  Now, onto the good stuff.

Over the past 40 years, the NHL has aired on the following networks:

  • ABC
  • CBS
  • FOX
  • NBC
  • HBO
  • ESPN
  • ESPN2
  • USA
  • SportsChannel America
  • Syndication
  • HDNet
  • NHL Network

All of these networks, despite their foibles, have done one thing: united us, whether it be a lot of people (The 1997 All-Star Game and Stanley Cup Final, the 2009 and 2010 Stanley Cup Finals) or just a scant few (a weekly cable game, the 2007 Stanley Cup Final) to watch game we all follow so very passionately.  The very fact that a blog can exist solely based on the news of what the National Hockey League is doing on TV is a tribute to the fans.

I don’t think any other sport could do it specifically, partially because there’s no way to make “basketball” or “football” sound like a double entendre and combine it with media in the title.  Mostly, however, this is because the NBA, MLB and NFL don’t have fans that are invested in the television success of their sports.  They don’t have to be, they’re all on solid ground (watch out, though, regular season baseball) with networks and cable.  We, the hockey fans, know that to help grow our sport, the TV product must be there, and the TV money must be there.

So, no matter who returns or joins anew as the television rightsholder for the National Hockey League, they had better know that its not merely expected of them to just show the game.  They need to help grow it, so that there will be more money in the next contract and the next contract.  Until the ratings are at least on par with the playoffs of other major sports.  Until, perhaps, one day a regularly televised cable game of the week can draw a million viewers regardless of what (American) teams are playing.

This is a huge responsibility.  That’s why it is both my suggestion and prediction that the NHL should, and will, incorporate some new blood into the television package. Not because NBC and VERSUS have been bad partners.  No, that is a grave misconception that many, many people who don’t read this blog, don’t watch hockey and don’t care about hockey will make over the next 6-9 months (when this whole thing is settled is my best guess) and you shouldn’t listen to them.

NBC and VERSUS have been fantastic partners, and they are going through a merger that will make both networks’ sports departments a lot stronger and certainly a force to be reckoned with in the near future.  The NHL is a precursor to the rights battles for the NFL and MLB in 2013, the NBA not too much further past that.  Don’t forget that the 2014/2016 Olympics rights will be sold soon too.  Just like the last time they purchased the rights, VERSUS is in this to make a statement, to challenge the ESPNs and Turners of the world.  My guess and want is for them to pony up more money for a big-time extension.  Likely, because of the merger, NBC will be a part of that merger.

There will be growing pains again, because NBC will likely want to rename it something more NBC-ish, and there’ll be more finding the channel again. Suddenly, however, the NHL will be linked to a network that will likely have Olympic coverage, and potentially a few Notre Dame football games.  Certainly, NBC will be looking for a bigger piece of the NFL pie in 2013, and possibly another look at Major League Baseball, which until the 90’s was a tradition at NBC.

So there you have it, sticking with NBC and VERSUS.  However, there needs to be another partner.  Unless VERSUS is willing to put 3-4 games a week for the entire season on its’ airwaves, there needs to be another partner.  It can be a small fry in the cable universe, a la HDNet, but I get the sense that the NHL wants its’ name back in the big lights.  You all know what I’m about to say, so you might as well sing the chorus with me.

Da-duh-da, da-duh-da.

ESPN.  The Worldwide Leader.  The Evil Empire.  The big corporate thingy we’ve spent the last 5+ years hating for the cold shoulder it has thrown at hockey.  We can listen to all the numbers, read all the ombudsman pieces, and it will still never satisfy us.  ESPN feels about hockey the way George Bush does about black people, according to noted voice-of-a-generation and amazing person on Twitter, Kanye West.

That’s why we loathe ESPN.  It is also why we need them, at least on some basis.

Let’s face it, and I know none of us wants to have this conversation, but the only conversation that matters to the mainstream sports world is the one ESPN is constantly having with itself.  The NHL needs to be contractually mandated into that conversation.  Have you ever been working with someone you hated, but knew they were unable to be fired because they’re so important to the company?  The NHL needs to be that guy.

So here’s what I’m suggesting.  Keep ESPN away from the Stanley Cup Final, but give them a platform to cover it and all the access they want.  Have them bring NHL2Night to the Final.  NHL2Night will be reinstated, by the way, once this happens.  However, VERSUS and NBC will keep the Final to divide as they see fit.

ESPN will air the All-Star Game and get first dibs on the biggest games.  If there are four Washington-Pittsburgh games per year, ESPN gets two, VERSUS gets one, NBC gets the remaining game.  If there are two Detroit-Philadelphia games in a season, ESPN gets one and NBC gets the other.  ESPN is essentially on even footing with NBC when it comes to picking games, but VERSUS gets in when it counts.

ESPN2 will air games on Thursday nights, while a newly launched (were just guessing here, maybe it will or won’t happen) ESPN3 would get to air weekend games, either in a Sunday night or Saturday night format.  Possibly some afternoon games.  ESPN2 & 3 would air a new NHL2Night.  Meanwhile, VERSUS will keep its’ Monday-Tuesdays, perhaps some Wednesdays mixed in.  NBC will be forced to move up to 12 dates a year, all on Sundays.

ESPN then will get involved with the playoffs.  There will be a draft system similar to the one that TSN and CBC use in Canada.  ESPN will get first and second pick at series, however, VERSUS gets slots 3-6.  Then ESPN also has to take on the seventh and eighth most desirable series.  NHL Network will pick up any games the plethora of networks can’t take, while NBC keeps it’s Saturday/Sunday schedule.

In the second round, VERSUS gets first pick, while ESPN gets second and third, and VERSUS gets fourth choice.  NBC again sticks to whatever Saturday/Sunday games that they want, and since they’ll be televising the two most desirable series, both VERSUS and ESPN lose an equal amount of games.

In the Conference Finals, ESPN and VERSUS alternate each year of the contract between East and West, similar to what the NBA does with TNT.  The schedule will be made so that Games 4 & 7 of each Conference Final would air on NBC.  This will ensure a chance for the NHL’s biggest games to have the biggest stage.  ESPN will then surrender the final to VERSUS and NBC.

This is all a prediction and a suggestion, not in anyway based in hard fact or “info I heard from another guy.”  But it is logical, and possible.  All these things can certainly happen, and I hope they all come to pass.  Because we’re all invested in growing the game, and I feel this mix is the best way to do it.


About Steve Lepore
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7 Responses to The Suitor Tutor, Part 5: The Glorious Conclusion, and Our Suggestion For Where the NHL Should Go Next on TV

  1. A Moose says:

    I like it. One of my pet peeves is not having each and every playoff game accessible ( other than Centre Ice). The Stanley Cup Playoffs are called the best in sport with good reason, what better way to grow the sport than get them all the heck out there.

    The CBC and TSN seem to co-exist very well with this plan, why not hear in the states. I’ll be curious how it shakes out after Comcast and NBC settle thier hash. You mentioned HDNet, but I would like to see the Universal HD get involved with hockey too.

    Great work on the series, really enjoyed it.

  2. Mike in Idaho says:

    I think your prediction is wishful thinking although I think it would be good for the game to get back on ESPN as well as stay with Versus. Unfortunately, the NHL has always been more concerned with money than exposure and if ESPN got in the game, all the exclusivity money from Versus would go away. If ESPN ponies up enough to make up for that, then I think this could happen.

  3. Chris says:

    I like this plan, and would be all for it, but if ESPN were involved, they’d want at least a piece of the Final. I know that TSN doesn’t get any of the games of the Stanley Cup Final in Canada, but they share national rights of the league with a network that’s been a broadcast partner with the NHL since 1952.

    ESPN, meanwhile, is going to see themselves as at least equal to NBC and superior to Versus, so they’ll want at least two games of the Final in alternating years on ESPN, if not the whole thing to air either on ESPN or ABC, with Versus and NBC splitting the series in the other years.

    Otherwise, I don’t see the deal getting done. In that case, Versus should have to take on more regular season games themselves (at least one more a week, preferably more west coast games) or find another cable partner to team up with to take on some of the load.

  4. Rhett says:

    I also like this plan that you put forth, Mr. Lepore. Frankly, the league if it wants to gain a bigger foothold in the sports landscape, especially in the U.S. is to broadcast more national games. I’d say 80-85 games as opposed to the 50-55 that Versus shows now. And the league has more than ample options to acheive this goal.

    Good stuff all around and it will be interesting to see what happens.

  5. neilballofrubber says:

    Stay away from ESPN like they were the plague, because the impending lockouts of the NFL and NBA are wildcards. If the two leagues cancel the 2011-2012 seasons at the same time, if the NHL stays exclusively with VS and NBC’s current universe (USA), then ESPN may actually fall down several notches showing nothing but college basketball on weeknights once the 2011 baseball season ends. By that time, Comcast/NBC Universal could very well do what FOX failed to do 10 years ago…top ESPN.

    • Chris S says:

      Good point. Lockouts in those leagues would be sweet justice, every other sport’s fans were laughing at us 5 years ago, it would be funny to see the same thing happen to them.

  6. e says:

    Please stay away from ESPN. I think the league has something good going with Versus and nbc. dont screw it up.

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