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THN.com Blog: Is a return to ESPN in the cards?

The NHL Winter Classic is a big draw for NBC. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

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The NHL Winter Classic is a big draw for NBC. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the NHL renewed its national television deal with NBC this past week, it didn’t exactly receive the financial windfall it had been seeking, but that might change in a couple of years.

Or not. If hockey remains in the realm of fringe sports, the league will always have to battle for recognition and the television dollars and exposure that come with it. If that’s the case, it might not be in any better position than it was when it renegotiated its deal with NBC. The league’s deal with NBC was essentially the same one it had with the network the past couple of seasons. The network doesn’t pay a penny in rightsholders fees per se, but doesn’t lose money on the deal, either.

The way the deal is structured, NBC covers the cost of production for each game. Any revenues generated from the broadcasts first go to paying those production costs and any money that is left over is split between the NHL and NBC, with 80 percent going to the league and 20 percent to the network.

Despite very robust numbers for the Winter Classic and better numbers for the Stanley Cup final games – the two events that make taking on the NHL a worthwhile endeavor for a network – the league still doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage when it comes to its television contract and was not in a position to make too many demands. It wasn’t as though other networks were falling all over themselves in a bid to televise hockey games.

But the league struck only a two-year deal with NBC for one very important reason. Its cable deal with Versus expires in two years and the league is hoping that by having both its over-the-air and cable contracts up for renewal at the same time it will have more options when it comes to its next television contracts.

“It was the right deal at the right time,” said one industry insider.

Could that mean the league is poised to return to ESPN in two years? After all, ESPN is owned by ABC, so the league could package both its over-the-air and cable packages in one deal.

A new deal with ESPN would be a welcome relief for those who don’t have access to Versus and are essentially shut out of NHL games. The league left ESPN after the lockout in favor of Versus after ESPN publicly questioned the value of hockey on its network.

The league has been vilified for the decision from many corners ever since, largely because Versus is far less accessible than ESPN. It’s estimated the Comcast-owned Versus is available in about 71 million homes as opposed to 92 million for ESPN, but ESPN is also far more available in places such as bars and hotels across the United States.

But the fact is Versus has done a very good job with the NHL during its tenure, with good productions and by giving hockey No. 1 billing on its network. It also took the NHL in when television types were staying away from the league in a big way. The network continued to break its ratings records through the playoffs and by making the league its top priority, has provided the NHL with a vehicle to show its product.

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And that certainly wasn’t, or wouldn’t be the case with ESPN. Even when ESPN had hockey, the sport was often treated like a second-class citizen and if the league went back, there wouldn’t be any guarantees it wouldn’t still take a back seat to things such as golf, NASCAR and poker. Now that the network doesn’t have hockey, coverage of the sport is almost non-existent, which likely wouldn’t be the case if ESPN were a rightsholder.

So if the NHL leaves Versus to go back to ESPN in two-years time, the league should thank its lucky stars it had someone to broadcast its games over the past couple of years. Not to mention the fact Versus has paid the NHL about $70 million per season for a product few others seemed to want. Perhaps the league could find a way to split its games between the two networks and keep Versus involved, the way the NBA does with games on both ESPN and TNT.

The game is much more entertaining and marketable from a television standpoint than it was before the lockout. The games are better, the shootout has added excitement and there are more offensive chances because the game has opened up since the pre-lockout drudgery. The league is full of dynamic, young stars and the level of play has never been higher.

It seems a little unfair how the network that took the NHL through this period might be frozen out when its contract expires in two years.

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Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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