I've never been a huge NHL fan but I'd like to be. When I actually sit down and watch a game I usually enjoy it - especially playoff hockey. I think one of the biggest reasons I've never become a fan is because of the lack of attention it draws. During the season SportsCenter devotes little time to highlights and even during the playoffs their coverage is sparse. Sure, SportsCenter/ESPN isn't the only place to go for sports but it's by far the biggest.
ESPN is so big that it dictates what is important and after the '04-'05 lockout when they didn't renew their NHL contract, they lost the incentive to promote the NHL. I believe ESPN was a huge factor in the NHL falling off the sports map and being relegated to a third-tier cable channel in Versus.
But hockey is on the way to coming back. From Media Week:
Despite a six-month carriage dispute with DirecTV that led to a blackout in some 14 million U.S. TV households--about 20 percent of its overall sub base--cable rights holder Versus saw its regular season NHL deliveries drop just 6 percent to 297,000 viewers. Since DirecTV came back on line in mid-March, ratings have been booming. During the final four weeks of the season, Versus averaged 365,000 viewers, up 28 percent from the same period a year ago. Through the first week of its Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage, Versus has averaged 534,000 viewers, up 21 percent.
And with the increased numbers, sponsors have come back, and with the sport on an upswing ESPN might possibly be back as well.
The uptick in hockey comes at a crucial time for the current rights holders. With Versus and NBC contracts set to expire in 2011, John Skipper, evp of content at ESPN, has indicated he'd like hockey to return to ESPN and ABC.
The NHL has a loyal following right now but in order to join the likes of the NFL, NBA or MLB they need ESPN. Otherwise, they will probably never get someone like me involved, the casual viewer.