Can the surging NHL do better than NBC?

In Pittsburgh this week, I had a few dozen conversations with other media about the NHL's television situation in the U.S.; and the battle lines are drawn between those who want the League back on ESPN and those who don't feel it necessary.

As first Tweeted by Chris Botta, the NHL is finalizing a two-year extension with NBC for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. According to the New York Times last year, the NHL's contract with Versus runs through 2011 as well. So barring renegotiation, all of the NHL's U.S. television properties would be up for bid in two seasons. Something to keep in mind for the Bristol-backers.

Bruce Dowbiggin of the Globe & Mail added some context to the NHL/NBC relationship:

It will likely be a continuation of the no-money-down/split-revenues-after-costs arrangement that has existed since the two sides fell into each other's arms after the NHL lockout in 2004-05.

At that time, NBC got an inexpensive property to fill out its sports schedule, while the NHL got the perfume of network respectability after locking out its players and fans for a complete season

It still wants that "perfume," seeing broadcast coverage of big NHL events (other than the All-Star Game, which belongs to Versus) as essential catnip for casual fans.

The NHL is in an interesting position for television. It has the Winter Classic, an undeniable ratings success that can create buzz for years to come. It has several marketable teams and stars that can bring eyes to the Stanley Cup Final; although the danger of a ratings-dud battle for the Cup is inherent for any American broadcaster. They all can't be the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The problem with bringing these properties back to ESPN is the NBA, which already snags airtime on ABC for its championship round; and college football, which has a full slate of games on ABC for New Year's Day. Go back to ESPN, and the NHL's signature events could be off of a broadcast network and cable-based. But hey, so is "Monday Night Football," right?

As we wait to see if this extension with NBC is finalized, the debate about the NHL's televised future in the U.S. rages on. Meanwhile, have you noticed that the NHL's partnership with Westwood One for syndicated radio broadcasts of games ended this year? The Wiki says that "NHL Radio was independently distributed by the National Hockey League themselves" beginning this season. The only radio coverage listed for tonight's Game 5 in Detroit is on XM Radio. Where have you gone, Sam Rosen?

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