I’m a Washington Capitals fan. Always have been. And now that I’ve recovered from the inexplicable seven-game first-round loss to the eminently dislikable Flyers, it’s time to complain about something other than the no-call on Sami Kapinen’s goal. That something is the lack of coverage of hockey here in the States.
No doubt, I’m far from the only one on campus who remembers the days of ESPN National Hockey Night: the great theme music, the CGI intro, and, most importantly, Wednesday and Friday night bliss. Things started to go downhill once ESPN acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games in 2002, and the NHL broadcasts moved to Thursdays. Still, telecasts one night a week were better than telecasts zero nights a week, and there were always the playoffs. But then came 2004.
The entire season was washed out thanks to a lockout. Around the same time, the league reached a new television rights deal with NBC and Outdoor Life Network, now known as Versus. Along with those rights went the NHL’s visibility. ESPN, the league’s former home, is among the most well known brands in the world, while OLN was a network best known for showing the Tour de France. While NBC, an over-the-air channel, obviously reaches every home in the U.S., it only shows games on the weekends and New Year’s Day, until the Stanley Cup finals arrive. That wasn’t going to be good for business. As it turned out, that wasn’t going to be good for anybody.
Hearken back to the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals between Ottawa and Buffalo. With the game tied 2-2 at the end of regulation, NBC cut to the Preakness pre-race show; Ottawa ended up winning 3-2 to make it into the finals. NBC claimed it had mandatory advertising commitments for the Preakness pre-race show.
Now, let’s try this again, except this time, let’s pretend ESPN has the rights. Once the game heads into OT, ESPN—or its corporate partner ABC, for that matter—picks up the feed, and NBC can still present its Preakness coverage in its entirety. I grew up in the Baltimore suburbs. I know the Preakness is a huge deal, especially back home. But so is the potential deciding game of the conference finals, especially when it’s between two teams with remarkable comeback stories: both teams filed Chapter 11 within a week of each other just four years earlier.
Both Versus and NBC have done an admirable job so far, but it is clear that the NHL is suffering to reach the exposure level of MLB, the NFL, the NBA, NASCAR, and arguably even the AFL. Note what the last five leagues have in common: they are all regularly featured on the preeminent sports network in the world, ESPN. If the NHL wants to start ascending the mountain back to relevance south of the Canadian border, it needs to find a way to get back onto the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
Certainly, there are some who may object to such a three-network broadcast arrangement, perhaps for fear of stretching the game pool too thin. I refer them to the other three major sports leagues. The NFL seems to be doing fine in its five-network arrangement, Major League Baseball has embraced TBS along with ESPN and Fox, and the NBA is thriving with ESPN, ABC, and TNT. Think about it: the trio splits regular-season and early playoff telecasts, with ESPN and NBC taking over in late April, and NBC showing the finals. It’s worked for the NFL, MLB, and the NBA; why wouldn’t it work for the second-oldest league in the country?
The NHL has shown a desire to increase its visibility in the U.S. and a willingness to maximize its use of the venues available to it to that end. The league should get major kudos for embracing YouTube—a check at writing time lists 2,602 videos by the user NHLVideo—in stark contrast to the NFL and its highbrow team of high-priced lawyers. Still, there’s a bit of a difference between watching hockey—or anything, for that matter—on a grainy computer screen and a 52-inch plasma. It’s time for the NHL and ESPN to reconcile their differences over the value of a rights deal and give hockey fans what they deserve.