Why NHL chose ESPN, Sportsnet for World Cup of Hockey

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Why NHL chose ESPN, Sportsnet for World Cup of Hockey
Why NHL chose ESPN, Sportsnet for World Cup of Hockey

The earth shook with jaws hitting the ground when it was leaked last month that the NHL was partnering with ESPN for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

The same ESPN it spurned twice for media rights deals with Comcast/NBC? The same ESPN that reduced hockey to a footnote in its on-air coverage, especially on SportsCenter and its sports screaming talk shows (FIRST TAKE, AROUND THE HORN)?

Yes, that ESPN.

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The same NHL that was so loyal to NBC that it entered into an exclusive 10-year deal rather than placing hockey on multiple networks?

Yes, that NHL.

“We’re thrilled to be back with the NHL in the United States,” said ESPN President John Skipper. ”The place is electric with excitement about getting back into hockey. We have a lot of hockey fans here.”

ESPN and Sportsnet were awarded the exclusive rights to the World Cup of Hockey, scheduled for Sept. 17-Oct. 1 in Toronto in 2016. The eight-team tournament – representing six nations, with a European all-star team and a North American Young Stars team – will conclude with a best of three final round for the Cup.

The partnership with Sportsnet was expected. The NHL had just ended a contentious bidding war between Rogers (Sportsnet) and Bell (TSN) in Canada, with Sportsnet winning the national rights package for the next 12 years.

According to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, both networks had a chance to present their bids for the tournament. “I would describe the negotations as competitive,” said Bettman.

Contrary to reports, Sportsnet did not have a “right to match,” according to Bettman.

“I was gratified and pleased that we had the level of interest from both networks there,” said NHLPA chief Donald Fehr. “But you can only have one.”

As expected as the Sportsnet rights win was – and there was zero chance the NHL would going to turn its back on its new dance partner for their arch rival, TSN – the ESPN decision was just as unexpected.

So why go back to the World Wide Leader?

Bettman said the primary motivator was ESPN’s ability to schedule the event. He said NBC had scheduling conflicts during the tournament, while ESPN had the network space available.

“NBC was involved in process but it became clear that, among other things, they had scheduling issues. It made the most sense to be partnering in this regard with ESPN. We couldn’t be more delighted about having them involved,” said Bettman.

NBC released the following statement: 

“As the home of hockey in the U.S., which includes rights to the NHL through 2021, the World Championships through 2017 and the Winter Olympics through 2030, we were interested in working with our partners again, but this event proved challenging due to programming commitments.”

Among NBC's scheduling commitments at that time are the Ryder Cup, NASCAR, F1, Notre Dame Football and the Paralympics. 

That said, the NHL going from NBC, which has given hockey the most airtime it’s ever received on cable, to ESPN, which has given hockey about as much attention as televised badminton since they lost the rights, must have stung Comcast a little, right?

“We have a terrific relationship with NBC Sports. We love the way they cover our game and they way they treated us,” said Bettman. “We have continued to maintain an excellent relationship with NBC. There are no points of friction or hard feelings. This is going to be an opportunity to promote into our season on NBC.”

Skipper said ESPN’s job is to “hand over a tremendous amount of interest” into the NHL season.

But what about ESPN’s interest after the World Cup? It’s been documented how little time is devoted to the NHL on SportsCenter. It’s also been rumored that the NHL’s deal with ESPN came with some coverage contingencies, i.e. better placement of highlights on SportsCenter.

“I’m not so sure – with my tongue in my cheek – that I’ve noticed much of a difference in their SportsCenter coverage when we were with them and after,” quipped Bettman.

“We kind of view this as an opportunity to rekindle the SportsCenter interest,” he said. “To the extent that the people on SportsCenter are more focused on hockey in September, maybe that carries over to the regular season.”

Yeah, maybe.

As we said previously: The NHL is in great shape in the U.S. thanks to various factors, one of them being NBC. It doesn’t need ESPN as it once did, but the World Cup of Hockey does need ESPN, in order to feel like a global event and feel like something different than the near-monthly “special events” on NBC.

Contrary to what many in the NHL’s Board of Governors and some agents believe, leaving ESPN wasn’t a mistake for the NHL. Failing to maximize the NHL’s potential on U.S. cable television – with a multi-network, multi-rights holder deal – when it re-upped with NBC might have been.

If it was a mistake, Bettman’s deal with ESPN takes a stride to correct it.

“If you look around the US broadcasting landscape, the three majors are on multiple platforms to begin with,” he said. “This isn’t revolutionary.”

Well, outside of the idea that the NHL and ESPN are partners again. 

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