On October 1st, the NHL opened its 2013 regular season with a marquee matchup pitting the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks against the Washington Capitals. The game in many ways was exactly what a professional sports league would want to rollout on opening day. Two great media markets in Chicago and Washington D.C., two of the league’s biggest stars in Chicago’s Patrick Kane and the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and teams that have perennially made the playoffs the last decade. Yet, flipping through cable that evening, there was a good chance that most American sports fans had no idea the NHL season had started and if they did, a huge chunk of hockey fans probably didn’t understand where or how to watch the game. Since the loss of the NHL’s ESPN deal in 2005, the league has struggled to plant itself on cable television, bouncing around from secondary network to secondary network in its new deal with NBC that has locked hockey out of the living rooms of large pockets of Americans, or at best, sandwiched itself in between hunting and fishing programming.
The loss of the ESPN deal, coming off of a disastrous lockout during the 2004-2005 season crippled an already weak relationship the NHL had with American hockey fans. A large part was because the NHL had not yet recovered from the lockout during the 1994-1995 season, which inconveniently weakened hockey’s chance on capitalizing on a Michael Jordan-free NBA. The NHL had also struggled with a labor dispute in 1992 and, as recently as last season, yet again missed a majority of its season due to another tumultuous lockout. It should be no surprise then, that pro hockey has struggled to firmly grab the number three spot in the United States, as the NFL has hit a full on boom period thanks to fantasy football and baseball finally makes an effort to clean up its performance enhancing drug issues. Both football and baseball have the built in advantage of long historical, societal ties in the roots of American culture, which hockey does not. The number of American cities that have a true hockey culture are small and the ones that actually embrace it even smaller. And in many of those towns, such as New York or Chicago, their hockey teams struggle to remain a close third on the city’s sports hierarchy.
Yet, the NHL had a long working relationship with ESPN, the unquestioned king in American sports media, since the 1980s, when ESPN aired not only regular season games, but entire playoff series and Stanley Cup Finals. Hockey played not only a major part in filling ESPN programming, but was a large part of the growth of ESPN2 into a cable mainstay. More importantly, however, the league’s exposure on the ESPN family of networks was more than just airing the games. Because ESPN had weekly NHL content, it had no choice but to heavily promote and cover hockey on its flagship channel and programs such as Sportscenter as well as aiming a large amount of its advertising towards its hockey content. The ESPN networks showing highlights, scores and interviews in between MLB and NFL clips greatly helped in the perception of hockey as one of America’s big three sports leagues and regularly airing hockey on nights in which ESPN did not have the rights to broadcast NFL, MLB or NBA content made pro hockey more accessible than it had ever been in the United States. ESPN had become a staple of cable packages by the early 1990s, and on nights where there was no basketball, football or baseball, millions of Americans could regularly find NHL hockey on ESPN or ESPN2. The ESPN deal also gave ABC the ability to broadcast NHL games on network television, although much less frequently than ESPN and ESPN2.
After over a decade of ESPN National Hockey Night, NHL 2Night and subsequent promotion behind its hockey coverage, ESPN dropped its relationship with the NHL almost entirely. ESPN doesn’t air any NHL regular season or postseason games, but more importantly, has little to no reason to put significant promotional material behind the league, as it could better spend those dollars promoting the NFL, NBA and MLB, all of which air on the ESPN/ABC family of networks. Today, at a time when the league has significant star power with household names like Sidney Crosby and a great on the ice product, ESPN’s coverage of hockey is a semi-daily, perhaps weekly blurb from Barry Melrose about the same handful of teams, teams already established in their markets, which doesn’t bode well for the NHL’s emphasis on expansion. After the demise of the ESPN deal, the NHL was scurrying for a suitor when it found the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), owned by Comcast (part owners of the Philadelphia Flyers) and began a new working deal with Comcast. OLN quickly became Versus, focusing more on competitive sporting coverage as opposed to hunting, fishing and the like. In 2011, the NHL took the next step, inking a mammoth contract with NBC Universal (who had merged with Comcast) looking to recreate the magic NBC had created with the NBA throughout the previous decades.
The new partnership with NBC and its new NBC Sports programming came with many promises. Perhaps for the NHL, it most importantly came with a significant short term financial investment it desperately needed. Versus became NBC Sports, totally rebranding itself away from its outdoors roots with an increased effort for advertising and promoting the NHL. But what has been slow is NBC Sports’s growth, especially in comparison to ESPN, which has since upped its coverage of Major League Soccer, international soccer and UFC coverage in addition to its ambitious ESPN3 online streaming service. It’s likely most Americans who even casually watch sports can quickly name the channel number of ESPN off the top of their head, while they might not even be aware if their cable package has an NBC Sports network. As recently as 2009, large carriers such as DirecTV have blocked out NBC Sports entirely, causing those who did have a subscription to Versus/NBC Sports to miss out a large chunk of regular season hockey. Outside of ESPN, the deal with NBC is probably the best the NHL could have done, especially considering NBC invested enough behind its NHL content to stay faithful even after yet another shortened season in 2012-2013, but the damage could be too great to save hockey any time soon.
Above all else, the perception alone that ESPN airs regular, live programming for the NFL, NBA and MLB might be enough on its own to shove hockey into a distant fourth place. As Major League Soccer continues to raise its popularity, it could slowly be inching closer to surpassing hockey in the United States sometime in the near future. Especially considering that live MLS programming is also aired on ESPN. The reality is that much of the NHL’s best interest is in continuing to have a strong footprint in the United States. The league will exist in some form as long as Canada is a sovereign nation. That being said, the majority of franchises are located south of the border in the US and its nearing 21 years since a Canadian club has taken home perhaps the most storied trophy in all of professional sports. It’s unlikely that hockey will regain any momentum without rekindling its relationship with ESPN, but it will take serious effort to make the product more attractive towards the Worldwide Leader. A variety of media moguls have attempted to take ESPN’s spot as the unquestionable leader in American sports coverage and many have failed. For that reason alone, the NHL hedging all their bets on NBC Sports moving forward may end up being a fatal blow.