Hockey’s Place on American Television

Many in the blogging world are starting to discuss which network the NHL will, or should, wind up on.

Many default to ESPN, the current king of sports tv.  The pros are obvious: sports audience, respectability by simply staying on the network.  The cons are pretty obvious as well: low visibility, not-so-great promotional job in the past.  The NHL on ESPN/ESPN2 felt like filler.  Few commercials for games, and even fewer in primetime spots.  Also, NHL 2night was cancelled after last season, not to be seen if there wasn’t a lockout.

Still, Mike Penner of the LA Times wrote For NHL, Best Move Might Be ESPN last week:

If it takes the advice of sports media analysts and experts, the league will go back to ESPN ASAP.

Most analysts are insisting that the league bite the bullet on money and simply go for exposure, and that ESPN is still the best option for exposure.  If ratings are any indicator, I’d say the NHL might want to test the waters elsewhere.

When ESPN first announced they were not renewing their current contract with the NHL, many suggested the USA network, where the NHL used to broadcast games in the 80s.  However, the channel has changed a good amount and probably isn’t the best fit for the NHL with it’s mixed demographic and golf/tennis/dog show coverage.

A week ago USA Today reported Spike TV was interested in broadcasting NHL games.  There are some big pluses to making a deal with Spike.  One is the demographic - easily the 18-34 male - something the NHL wants to target.  Another is the fact that Spike is a young network, still forming original programming and giving itself an image, it would be very likely to promote hockey a ton, something the game needs.  Is Spike stable enough to sign a deal with?  From the LA Times article:

Spike has the type of demographic the NHL wants. “Spike’s demo is the 31-year-old male,” Pilson said. “But there’s a question as to whether Spike is going to continue its format.”

If Spike’s format is in question the NHL should be extremely weary about signing anything more than a one-year deal.  But Spike does seem serious about sports.  The Boston Globe reported Spike is interested in NASCAR back on July 1:

The Fox and NBC deals run out after next season. NASCAR has opted not to exercise its two-year option to extend the Fox half of the deal.

That opens the way for a profitable (for NASCAR) bidding war among ABC/ESPN, Fox, and NBC. Even Viacom (CBS) could get involved to boost its male-oriented Spike TV (the old Nashville Network) cable channel.

While NASCAR and NHL fans may not fit hand-in-hand it does show that the network is interested in major sports and looking to still cater to the same basic demographic.

Oh, and for the fight fans, I’ll make an assumption that you won’t have any Spike cameramen turning away from any scraps or having some guy in a van show you the bench while a brawl breaks out.

Other contenders right now seem to be Comcast and TNT.  TNT is not specifically named in the MediaWeek article, just Turner, but TNT is most likely the station the NHL would wind up on.  TNT currently has a deal with the NBA, and the NHL may not want to compete with scheduling on that station.  TNT has done a good promotional job with the NBA during the years of the contract and it would be foolish to dismiss the network right away.

Comcast, which has regional sports channels along with the Outdoor Life Network, might be interested in running with a large NHL deal and starting it’s own national sports network.  While some have tried and failed (Fox Sports, CNNSI), none had a national contract with a “major” sport to broadcast live.  While the NHL’s popularity has suffered the past few years, it still brings much more respectability to the table for a new network.  Also, MediaWeek notes that a new network could also rope in the NFL to a small deal:

While Comcast officials would not comment, it has been rumoured that Comcast is planning to do just that, starting a new network where it can also telecast Thursday/Saturday night NFL games if it can do a deal for that package.

A new network with NHL and NFL games could be the start of a real ESPN contender.  (Sure, there’s a lot of programming to fill in, but I’m sure a few news broadcasts and a random poker show can help fill some late nights.)  On a new sports network from Comcast, or even a network like Spike, there’s enough room in the schedule to make an NHL 2night-type show, another angle one of these networks might use to try and win the NHL contract besides cold, hard cash.

Back in April, when the NFL signed a deal with NBC I wrote about how it could be good for the NHL, simply from the few promos it can get during NFL games on the channel.  If Comcast could grab the NHL and Thurs-Sat night NFL games, which would have to be played late in the football season (during hockey season) due to an antitrust law not to broadcast games against college football, the NHL can only do better.  In-game promotions and possible late-night (west coast) games being aired after NFL games could prove to be very successful.

It may sound iffy, but NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been hinting at possibly getting a deal done with a new network for quite some time.  From February:

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Friday there remains disagreement on what the rights fee should be for ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and ESPN’s Sunday pro football packages, and held open the possibility the league could “do something that’s really bold and major and not just business as usual in terms of how we grow our television services.”

Tagliabue would not specify what the new “bold and major” initiative might entail at his annual state of the NFL news conference but did say, “we are giving very serious consideration to being part of the launch of another major sports network on cable and satellite television. That’s a complicated thing, but we’re looking at that very seriously. That’s a strategic thing, which anticipates the future of television technology and the future interests of where people are going to be in terms of digital television technology.”

At the time it was thought a new network could be from Fox, but Comcast could do just fine, especially if they already have a deal in place with another league; and while the other NFL TV deals have been ironed out, the league is also working on something to secure it’s spot as the most popular sport in the US.  If the NHL needs to ride it’s coattails for a bit to climb back up the ladder, so be it.

In the end the NHL should be very happy it has some real options.  When the lockout started there was a “never to be seen again” feel in the US.  To bring the questions of “if” or “when” to “where” is a big step for the recovering league.

Posted by David M Singer on Jul 20, 2005 at 04:43 PM
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