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Fans outraged as NHL’s European TV deal remains in the dark

Hockey fans in the U.S. know all too well about standoffs between a distributor of NHL content and a television provider; the scars from the VERSUS/DirecTV wars of 2010 still run deep.

But that was one outlet for NHL hockey vs. one satellite company. Now, imagine if it were the only provider of NHL TV content and it was an entire nation being deprived of games.

Congratulations: You've just imagined what NHL fans in Europe are outraged over as the 2011-12 NHL season arrives.

OK, forget outrage — it's outright panic that they won't have the NHL available on television when the puck drops this week. Facebook pages with names like "No NHL on TV in Europe for 2011-12 Season" have been created. Fans are writing letters of outrage. Newspapers in the Czech Republic are telling fans they can watch games "on the sly over the Internet" instead.

While the NHL claims this situation will be rectified shortly, the fact remains that its desire for an expanded, and more lucrative, television deal is at the heart of this continent-wide mess.

For years, the NHL had partnered with ESPN on international television rights, with League games appearing on ESPN America and ESPN360.com in European markets. ESPN America's market penetration in Europe was inconsistent, however, and it was frequently offered on a higher pricing tier than other sports networks. (Remember how pricing tiers helped create that mess with VERSUS and DirecTV?)

The NHL's contract with ESPN America ended after last season, and the League sought to expand and rethink its television coverage in Europe. It signed a five-year deal with Medge Consulting and its partner Advisers Media International (AMI) to represent the international media rights for the NHL in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. From Medge:

The agreement includes the live HD broadcast rights for up to 480 NHL games per season, including playoffs, Stanley Cup Final and the NHL Winter Classic amongst others and a range of highlights programming and NHL support programming.

"This as a long term partnership to further develop the NHL's presence and products in Europe and beyond", says Peter Liljestrand from Medge Consulting.  Robert Pickles of AMI adds, "We look forward to working with the NHL to increase their distribution and popularity internationally."

There is no "Medge TV" or "AMI Network"; these groups were hired to broker deals with regional television providers in countries ranging from Sweden, Czech Rep. and Slovakia to Spain, Portugal and France.

Fans outraged as NHL’s European TV deal remains in the darkESPN America was a blanket deal with little room for personalization; Medge and AMI sought to make deals that tailored coverage to the particular region. The Czechs, for example, probably would like to see more of the Philadelphia Flyers this season than in previous seasons because of Jaromir Jagr(notes) and his countrymen. Under this deal, that could happen. Plus, depending on the network, there would the possibility of more games being shown than were on ESPN America.

The new partnership also allowed the NHL to shop its product to different providers in each country, seeking the best deal financially and in carriage. Why settle for ESPN America on an high cable channel when the NBC-equivalent in a certain country might be interested in carrying games instead?

Essentially, this third party is trying to cut a dozen deals at the same time, their asking price buoyed by increased competition for the rights and the popularity of the product.

This has made some television providers cringe, according to iSport.cz (translated roughly):

"According to sources [the NHL] is reportedly up to seven times more expensive than in the past. And you might say: if Nova has acquired [it] under these conditions, [there] would be almost no money for other sports."

As Moisés, a Puck Daddy reader in Spain, wrote in an email: "It looks like these guys (Medge/AMI) got a heck of a deal for the English Premiere League, and they think the same would happen with the NHL. Problem is, the NHL is not the Premiere League, at least over here…"

The situation has frustrated fans like Janne Vitanen from Push For Pros:

I know NHL is trying to push the sport here in Europe, but the current situation is doing little to help the leagues visibility on the 'old-continent'. There is a huge number of fans that are tuning in to watch the games night in night out and many have subscribed to channels such as ESPN America or equivalent depending on their respective region.

What really annoys me, and I'm sure many of the fans in Europe, is that there seems to be a visible disconnect between the rights holders, the NHL and the fans. As many of us fans have had subscriptions to paid for channels, we have gone and cancelled our subscriptions, because a) the broadcaster cannot comment, b) the NHL is not commenting and c) Medge Consulting/AMI Partners have done little except issued a press release about the acquisition of the rights. How difficult is it to give some sort of guidance on the situation. The few articles I've read have Medge saying the "chances of having NHL on the TV in Europe is 100%", and broadcasters saying that "at the moment I don't think it is viable." You can obviously see where the confusion comes from, can't you.

We asked the NHL for comment on this, and a League spokesperson passed along the following:

"Our effort is to make every game available either through TV or NHL GameCenter Live throughout Europe. We are currently in deep discussions to achieve this, with our ultimate goal being to secure the broadest distribution possible on a country-by-country basis, providing more NHL hockey to our fans abroad than ever before. We look to achieve this in combination with the upcoming launch of several customized foreign-language NHL websites."

The Paranoid Puck, who has done some great reporting on the European TV mess, reports that GameCenter Live — the NHL's online video player for streaming games — is now available in Europe:

While this is good news, it is still unknown where the Euro TV rights are headed. Without any deals signed for that, the entire AMI/Medge partnership is off to a very rough start for the league. At this point it doesn't appear that AMI/Medge has made many gains for the league as GCL is an in house product. Unless ESPN was demanding continued use of ESPN Player, it is hard to say how AMI/Medge has brought anything new to the table at this point. Hopefully that will change over time.

Virtanen, however, doesn't see GameCenter Live as a viable option for fans who can't get the NHL on their televisions:

Further to the point, if you really are looking to push the sport in Europe, please remember that not all countries are developed to the point that they could afford 20Mbps connections at every house. Heck, I'm lucky to get a 1Mbps connection and none of the providers can do much better.

Am I to assume that I'm going to have to watch games, from game centre, with grainy image quality and with a connection that cuts out every 5 seconds? Hardly the experience one would want from the game of hockey.

What about the price for the Game Centre then? In the past I have paid £10 for ESPN America per month and looking at the Game Centre prices for the USA, it does not look that attractive. Do you really want to start having fans flock to 'illegal' streaming links? At the moment it would seem that we have no other option.

When pressed about this issue, a source with knowledge of the negotiations told Puck Daddy that some of these talks could be finalized around the start of the season, but that some other countries will see these rights discussions continue on into the season.

Hopefully they're resolved. The frustration is palpable. From Mark, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan in the U.K.:

It is obvious that since the 2004/2005 lockout, the NHL has made a huge effort in trying broaden it's fan base in Europe with more exhibition games than before and the introduction of NHL Premiere Games. I firmly believe for this reason, that the NHL will resolve this matter as quickly as it possibly can.

We can only guess at the timescale of this and whether this will still involve Medge/AMI is up for conjecture.

On a personal level I hope after the fallout of this, that the NHL takes a hard look at itself and may consider having it's own channel to be broadcast on networks overseas. I'm sure there must be money to be made from going that route and would sure make things easier for us fans this side of the ocean eh!

Oh, there's plenty of money to be made. That's partially what got European fans into this mess. But as the NHL continues to make inroads into those markets, this sort of thing is expected.

Avarice and clumsiness, that is.

UPDATE: One of the suitors for this new NHL deal? Why it's ESPN America, according to ESPN's PR group:

"We remain in discussions with the current NHL rights holders about the potential for English-language NHL rights in Europe. We are still interested in continuing our coverage if the right opportunity exists, and continue to have a valued relationship with the NHL. We'll share more information as it develops in the future. "

Indeed.

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