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The Bear Cave


July 24, 2009 8:29 AM

What Impact Could ESPN have on the NHL?

A few days ago, I mentioned my disappointment in the lack of attention that hockey received during the 2009 ESPY Awards. Shortly after, a question was posed to me, asking if the sport would have done better if the NHL went back to being televised on ESPN. The short answer to that question is yes, but I think it would be more interesting to go more in depth. Unfortunately, I was beaten to the direct punch by The Hockey News' Ken Campbell. His article can be seen here. I will do my best to expand on that, while also taking a couple of different angles.

First and foremost, let's talk about the NHL's current television contract in the United States. Last week, the league reached an agreement with NBC on a two-year deal, running through the 2010-11 season. The spring of 2011 is the same time that the NHL's deal with Versus expires, meaning there could potentially be two competitions for hockey coverage during that summer.

Following the lockout, the NHL hooked on with Versus, which was then known as the Outdoor Life Network. That drew a plethora of criticism, as very few people knew about the station's programming, along with where it was located in their local lineup of channels. I was one of those people, as I needed the assistance of my guide button in order to figure out which two buttons to press on my remote. In April of 2006, OLN made the switch to Versus, while also making an effort to focus more on hockey. That was certainly a plus for hockey, but the issue has still remained that Versus isn't as familiar to the average fans as a station such as ESPN.

In his article, Ken Campbell mentioned the possibility of three networks of hockey coverage in the standard cable package. This would mean a renewal of the contract with Versus, another contract with a national network (NBC, ABC, CBS), and ESPN on top of all of that.

Despite the lack of familiarity, renewing the contract with Versus is important. Versus saved the NHL with their offer in 2005, and has made a strong effort to serve hockey as best as they can, especially during the playoffs, when you can see at least one game each night. That type of commitment has to be given on both sides of the agreement.

Having a national network on board is as obvious as it gets. Every sport has one, so why should hockey be any different? Right now, that deal is with NBC. If ESPN enters the picture, that contract could switch over to ABC, as ESPN owns ABC.

Finally, there would be ESPN. If you are a sports fan in the United States, you probably tune into ESPN multiple times a day. Whether it's the morning edition of SportsCenter, the shows throughout the day, the games at night, or the evening edition of SportsCenter, ESPN is as popular as it gets. Heck, just think about the sports fans searching for something to watch. You have to figure that ESPN is among one of their first stops while flipping through the stations. With all of those people watching, just imagine the type of exposure that the NHL could gain by adding ESPN to the mix. Even if they don't watch the games themselves, one would have to believe that the highlights from the games would be bigger and better. And hey, what about commercials? The NHL could use ESPN to advertise games being shown on that station. Also, superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin could be used for the popular "This is SportsCenter" campaign of ads. The possibilities are practically endless.

Now that the basics would be worked out, let's talk about logistics, such as days and times. Quite frankly, this is an area that really bothers me with the current contract on Versus. For those that are unfamiliar with it, during the regular season, the NHL airs games on Versus on Mondays and Tuesdays. Tuesdays are fine, leave those as they are. But Mondays? Let's think about this for a second. This is being shown in the United States. What do Americans typically watch on Mondays? Oh yeah, Monday Night Football. Like it or not, more people are going to watch football if they have the choice, meaning the Versus game will likely only be watched by the true hockey fans. Ratings down. Granted, Mondays could be better during January, February, and March, but I am a creature who enjoys consistency.

In following the Boston Bruins, I have to believe that the best weeknights for hockey on television in the United States are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays (distrubute them among Versus and ESPN however you'd like). The school and work weeks are in progress during all three days, meaning a good amount of people would be at home, searching for something to watch as they wind down before bed. Plus, the competition isn't as strong from other leagues on those days. The Bruins have always had great success with home games on Thursdays, as most people view Friday as that relaxing day to finish the week. So, why not Friday? Because people tend to go out and celebrate the week being over, knowing that they are in no hurry to wake up the next morning. Don't believe me? Check out your local watering hole, movie theater, or other popular establishment for customers.

Because of professional and college football, weekends are challenging in the fall, which is why the national networks tend to hold off in showing hockey until the beginning of January. Once it reaches that stage, take your pick. Personally, I would select Saturday. My reason is because the NBA already airs nationally on Sunday, which would create a battle of what to watch. The smaller the competition, the better chance the NHL has to succeed on television in the United States. Of course, this could spoil the true hockey fans, as it would create a tripleheader with the two games from Hockey Night in Canada on the NHL Network (or CBC for those with satellites). Good luck dragging your hockey loving spouse and/or child out of the house on that day!

There are still two more seasons until this could become a reality, but just imagine how much better things could be for the game of hockey if ESPN was brought on board as a third station!

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