What came first: The chicken or the egg? Is hockey’s lack of popularity in the United States a result of lack of coverage by large sports networks like ESPN? Or do channels like ESPN not talk about hockey because the interest does not exist?
The latter cannot be true, of course, as the league fills arenas on a nightly basis while also attracting millions of viewers on television. Nonetheless, the NHL has yet to match the rating standards that the NFL, NBA and MLB meet on a consistent basis.
Currently the NHL is tied to a contract with Comcast, the owner of NBC’s networks, that runs through the 2020-21 season. The agreement is one of the few in sports that gives exclusive rights to a single network.
MLB splits its coverage between FOX, ESPN and Turner, while the NBA shares its rights with both ESPN and Turner. Spreading the wealth gives the game more exposure to multiple audiences.
In theory, an NHL television deal that includes games on ESPN would provide the sport with more publicity on the most prominent American sports network. Currently, it is rare to find any hockey coverage on Sports Center or any of the network’s major talk shows. You are more likely to find out what Lebron ate for breakfast than see 30 seconds of hockey highlights.
An agreement that gives ESPN some rights would almost certainly increase the extent of their NHL coverage. Naturally, they would want to promote the sports that are airing on their channel.
Allocating games to multiple networks would also decrease the quantity of games on obscure channels. Last year’s NHL playoffs included games on USA, the Golf Channel and CNBC, none of which are places one would expect to find hockey. Basically, any channel that Comcast owned became a hub for the NHL during the early rounds of the playoffs.
Having more flexibility with their networks could also allow the league to increase the quantity of games aired nationally. Of course, the availability of games available to fans plays a vital role in a sport’s exposure. If the NHL is all over the dial on a nightly basis, viewership is bound to go up.
ESPN also holds greater recognition than NBC Sports, making it easier for viewers to find. People flip on ESPN more casually, while NBC Sports is a network people seek out to watch a specific game.
On the other hand, the league would need to ask whether they would truly want to partner with ESPN. Although it is the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” the quality of ESPN’s coverage has diminished for many sports over the past decade. Monday Night Football, once recognized as the big game of the week, is often an afterthought once the actual top matchups roll through on Sunday. The Browns vs. 49ers game from last night is nothing that the casual fan is going to get excited about. These days, it is rare to find the biggest sports games on ESPN for any league besides the NBA.
But if the NHL manages the deal well, they could ensure that ESPN receives some prime games. During the early 2000s, ESPN’s hockey coverage was always considered strong, anchored by the legendary play by play voice of Gary Thorne. If the league was return to ESPN, would they produce the same quality they once did?
In some sense, the quality may not matter if the network is providing the league with more exposure. Not only does ESPN’s reach span to its own television channels, but also local radio networks in each major market, and online.
The network has recently taken steps towards increased hockey coverage. Last fall they aired the newly instituted World Cup of Hockey and they recently began offering games on their streaming platform, ESPN+.
As it comes time for the NHL to renew a new contract, it is guaranteed that the other major networks, including FOX and ESPN, will be interested in acquiring some form of viewing rights. The league will need to decide if a split television agreement would be in the best interest of the sport’s growth.
Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @dylan_barrett_.