Periodic musings from the desk of...
ESPN's open door, a Lightning enlightening and more
Posted: Wednesday December 12, 2007 3:10PM; Updated: Wednesday December 12, 2007 3:32PM
The day the NHL should have recognized that not re-upping with ESPN was a mistake was Aug. 23, 2005.
The Atlanta Thrashers and Ottawa Senators made one of those old-fashioned big talent-for-big talent trades: Dany Heatley heading north in exchange for Marian Hossa. This kind of trade is usually mother's milk for the network, which puts earth-moving deals near the top of their SportsCenter shows, filling in the blanks with all manner of talking heads and instant analysis.
(Aside No. 1: Have you noticed that in the past few years, SportsCenter has ceased being television -- clip heavy -- and essentially become televised radio with all its yakking?)
ESPN, out of the hockey broadcasting business post-lockout, greeted Heatley-Hossa with a giant yawn. The trade was reported, if memory serves, 42 minutes into the show. There was no comment offered, no who-won/who-lost in the deal. Just the facts.
For the past two-plus years, not a week goes by without a hockey executive privately bemoaning the move to OLN (now Versus), which offered rights fees that ESPN was unwilling to pay. Despite Versus' creeping penetration in the U.S. -- I actually have stayed in three hotels, an airport Marriott in Nashville and venues in hockey-savvy Buffalo and Detroit, that offer the channel -- it never has become destination viewing for the casual sports fan.
About a month ago, Paul Kelly, the new executive director of the NHL Players Association, told me that he viewed losing the exposure ESPN offered as a major mistake. Kelly, who made similar remarks in an interview published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune late last month, has let commissioner Gary Bettman know his concerns, which could be as far as the matter goes.
The NHL's television situation in the U.S. is in flux. NBC, which struck a revenue-sharing agreement with the NHL in lieu of right's fees, must decide whether to pick up its option at the beginning of April. For the network, which ditched a Senators-Sabres playoff overtime last spring in order to keep a commitment to show a pre-race Preakness Stakes preview, the key to hockey success is having a marquee Stanley Cup Final matchup, something it won't know at the time it has to make a decision. Meanwhile last January, Versus extended its deal until 2011, giving the network cable exclusivity on national games. But this week a Versus spokesman told On The Fly that if the NHL wanted to talk about bringing another network into the equation, "we'd be willing to sit down and have that conversation with the NHL."
The door is open, then, for ESPN.
According to an ESPN source, the network could be interested if it saw a fit in terms of cost and content. The network would require playoff hockey and one night of exclusivity during the regular season. "It's totally in the NHL's hands," the source said.
As one media critic expressed it, does the NHL want to be No. 7 on ESPN or No. 1 on Versus? The league does indeed receive more loving care from Versus than it did on ESPN, despite the half-hour show ESPN2 used to give it nightly, but its absence from the cable heavyweight has taken hockey one step further from the national conversation. ESPN's tentacles reach so many places, and a hug by the network might help restore some luster.
Then again, hockey numbers weren't exactly boffo because of the NHL's old relationship with ESPN, were they? In any event, there could be some movement. What's that phrase they used in the television world? Oh, right. Stay tuned.