"Once they have you, there's no incentive to grow you because it costs them more money. Mark [Shapiro] played tough with us because he could. I think they were trying to send a message, but they overplayed their hand because they drove me to the point of creating a new partnership." – Gary Bettman, “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN”
Where would the NHL be today had it never left ESPN for Comcast and NBC?
Would we have a Winter Classic, which was created by NBC as counterprogramming for the college bowl games we see on ESPN and its networks? Would we have a 10-year, $2 billion U.S. television contract? Would we have the number of games NBCSN airs during the regular and postseasons?
Conversely: Would the NHL’s growth be even greater with the ESPN machinery behind it? New rules, new stars, glamour franchises winning Stanley Cups … would all of that have been amplified by ESPN in an even greater way than its been through NBC? Would Skip Bayless spend hours calling Sidney Crosby selfish and LeBron-like?
These are debates that rage among fans, media critics and in the upper echelons of NHL management and ownership. That the NHL needs ESPN.
Or, perhaps now, it’s ESPN that actually wants the NHL. According to Rick Westhead of TSN, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey rights have been awarded to ESPN over NBC and Fox Sports.
And thank god for that.
The NHL made one critical mistake since leaving ESPN: Putting all of its eggs in one Peacock-feathered basket.
This isn’t to say that NBC has done a poor job of promoting and covering the sport, because it hasn’t: Think about where we were during the VERSUS years vs. where we are now. It’s like we went from public access call-in show to the Oscars telecast.
No, the mistake was the narrowness of the deal. The NBA is on multiple networks. Major League Baseball is on multiple networks. The NFL is on, like, every network. The idea that the NHL wouldn’t have a game of the week or some facsimile thereof on ESPN or Fox Sports 1 or, hell, SPIKE TV would seem to undermine the potential to reach new fans.
(That last option might be my ongoing wish for an NHL/"Bar Rescue" crossover.)
Loyalty to NBC is understandable, but it came at a cost of maximizing the NHL’s momentum.
So the ESPN deal, if it comes to pass, somewhat corrects that. They will promote this thing to the moon. They will put championship games in prime time on the network. And for two weeks, ESPN will cover hockey like it covers any property it has a financial stake in, which is with rapt attention.
And, let’s face it: The World Cup of Hockey on ESPN makes it feel like something greater than the exhibition made-for-television cash-grab that it is. It makes it feel like a special event for all sports fans, rather than another NHL gimmick cooked up for the niche audience on NBCSN.
When the NHL was on ESPN, it was pushed aside and treated like a third-class citizen. I’m glad they didn’t leave NBC to return there, because everything that happened before would happen again. But I’m also glad they’re apparently back in business with ESPN, for this limited run tournament.
The NHL doesn’t need ESPN to be successful. The World Cup of Hockey might.
Bring on Gary Thorne.
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