Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.
A Mediaweek report came out this weekend claiming that ESPN is prepared to launch a large-scale bid for the NHL's TV rights, in the near future.
There are two schools of thought on the matter.
The first, likely to come from loyalists and alarmists alike, is that The Worldwide Leader in Sports wants to take on the league's TV deal almost cynically. That even if it had the NHL Game of the Week or brought back NHL 2 Night, it would do so in such a way that it continued to relegate the league to the third- or fourth-rate status it currently does. That it would continue to laugh up its sleeves at us poor, stupid hockey fans that don't like a real sport.
That notion is at once understandable and, of course, incredibly stupid.
ESPN is a television network run by people who more or less decide the national sports conversation. If it were to pick up the rights to the NHL, it would be doing so having invested what is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars, particularly if there's a bidding war between it and Versus.
Not that the timidity isn't understandable. ESPN dropped the NHL's rights at a time when they could be had for a relative song, badmouthing it and denigrating it every step of the way even before the lockout. As a result, Gary Bettman basically went to Versus hat in hand and took whatever deal they offered him. But hockey fans have a long memory, and good businessmen do not.
It would be remarkably foolish for both ESPN and the NHL to sit around and remember what the hell was going on in 2005. The League is far, far different now than it was in those days. So too is the network.
(Coming Up:The Fire Ron Wilson movement; Khabibulin's brilliant save; Blue Jacket takes a cannon to the body twice; Dustin Byfuglien(notes) talks Thrashers attendance; Ference stands up to Inglorious; Oshie is a beast; Craig Anderson(notes) injury update; no one listens to Langenbrunner; Datsyuk gets robbed; Dan Boyle(notes) talks Tampa Bay poison; Toews is golden; and why you should be embarrassed for the Kings because of the media that covers them.)
It's not that Bettman will completely ignore the treatment the League received in the dying days of its old rights contract, but he's not going to let that get in the way of a potentially lucrative deal.
He serves at the pleasure of the 30 owners and, whatever you may personally think of the way he's handled things, he's been a pitbull for them. What they've wanted, he's gotten. More teams in the 1990s meant more expansion fees, a salary cap meant guaranteed profits, and a new TV deal will almost certainly mean far bigger revenues than the franchises receives under the current deal. The various decisions he's made can be seen a lot of ways, but "bad for business" sure as hell isn't one of 'em.
And that brings us to the second school of thought on the potential ESPN deal: the pragmatic one.
Even if it is ESPN hedging its bets on either an NBA or NFL work stoppage, or both, next winter, it behooves the network to promote something it just laid out a couple Kovalchuk contracts' worth of money. Hell, it probably paid next to nothing for the Major League Soccer deal, and there's MLS Game of the Week every Wednesday, and usually a game or two on the weekends as well.
But more than that, ESPN is attuned to the pulse of the sports world, for obvious reasons. It got the MLS contract as soccer really started to get big, and has since gotten Premier League, La Liga, UEFA and World Cup contracts, and done well at presenting all of them. Why, it's almost as though the network saw a sport growing in popularity and then did its best to promote the sport because it had a financial interest in doing so! What a business decision.
Perhaps people don't remember when ESPN first had the NHL broadcast rights. It showed the 2004 World Cup of Hockey when it clearly didn't have to. It showed regular hockey programming throughout the week. Hell, it showed Pro Beach Hockey. So let's not act like ESPN didn't have a vested interest in hockey's success until the lockout torpedoed everything.
This is always going to be a divisive issue, but if the only real choices are between ESPN and Versus, the NHL is choosing between loyalty and continued obscurity, or openness to new ideas and greater exposure to a sports audience that will continue to think that "hoc-key?" joke is funny until ESPN tells them not to.
In the end, Bettman is going to choose what's best for the league. What you think that means to him is another story entirely.