NHL Should Have Brought ESPN Into the Rink

by , Apr 19, 2011, 3:26 PM
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From an NHL player's standpoint, the most encouraging news emerging from word their games will stay on NBC and Versus is the Versus brand will be gone soon. The network will be re-flagged this summer with the NBC moniker in the name -- which should lessen some of their frustration that their games won't be on ESPN.

Otherwise, they have to be questioning Commissioner Gary Bettman's decision to ink the new agreement. Comcast showed determination to outbid ESPN for exclusive rights to keep national NHL carriage on NBC and a would-be NBC Sports Channel.

But the smart move for the NHL would have been to find a way to divide rights, giving ESPN, say, a Sunday night game of the week and some playoff action. That may have brought the league less money up-front, but more over the length of the 10-year contract from a holistic viewpoint.

ESPN is not known to under-hype the properties it carries. The NHL on ESPN would bring significant exposure via shoulder programming - studio shows on multiple networks. In the short term, the cable coverage would be in far more homes than the NBC Sports Channel.

Ratings on Versus have been rising and NBC's coverage of the Stanley Cup finals has produced strong results, but an ESPN weekly game would only lift cumulative results.

The exposure from ESPN would surely trickle down and bring added sponsorship dollars for the NHL. It could also help attendance in struggling southern U.S. markets and boost the value of teams, many of which are for sale.

At the end of the day, the NHL actually needs ESPN more than ESPN -- which has higher rated basketball all winter -- needs it.

It's curious how the new head of the NHL players' union, Don Fehr, feels about the latest deal. Maybe the more money the league will collect will embolden him during a coming renegotiation of the labor contract. But, the head of the union in 2007, Paul Kelly, was pretty clear about players' frustration with being on Versus, a network known for the NHL and the Tour de France, no doubt an event NHL stars watch avidly.

Kelly told a Twin Cities newspaper: "This sport has got to get back on ESPN. The marketing and sponsorship activities will flow from a good, solid national TV contract, which the sport has lacked now for a number of years."

ESPN had rights to the NHL until failing to re-up after the league's year-long lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.

In 2008, NHL COO John Collins said: "Hockey players in the NHL aren't used to being considered third- or fourth-tier guys. So when they have a sense that the sport is not as prevalent as it could be, and they have a share in the total revenues, they're going to voice their concerns."

Now, at least players have some trust in the NBC brand, partly because of the superb "Winter Classic" the network carries on New Year's Day. Comcast sports head Dick Ebersol promises vast use of the company's sports properties to promote the NHL and that will catch the attention of the players.

Of course, while the NHL wants to keep its players content, without fans, that's meaningless. Bettman is smart and surely ran the numbers on all the potential options with ESPN.

The new Comcast deal promises many more games and other increased coverage - maybe some games on cable's top-rated USA network -- but its most innovative aspect is the launch of a national game on NBC the day after Thanksgiving. This is straight out of the "Winter Class" playbook, where that game has proven to be strong counter-programming on a day traditionally devoted to college football.

Losing the bidding for the NCAA basketball tournament and now the NHL leaves ESPN with more money to spend if it wants to be an aggressive bidder now for the Olympics. Comcast will be too as the Games are too affiliated with NBC not to hold onto them.

The International Olympic Committee should take advantage of both companies' hunger and dollars and do what the NHL should have: split rights between the two.

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