I have no idea why The Globe & Mail’s Bruce Dowbiggin thinks now is a good time to wonder if the NHL made a mistake in leaving ESPN years ago. Especially with the news of The Score Radio shutting down, CTV announcing Olympic plans and the Sports Gemini Award nominations coming out. Then again, this is a guy who criticizes Charles Wang in the same article and encourages him to spend his own money. Too bad Wang already proposed that many years ago and Nassau shot it down. I could have a field day talking about Dowbiggin’s writing (BTW Bruce, it’s NBC Sports Network, not NBC Sports Channel. Since you “signalled” that in April, you should get it right when it’s announced. Or maybe, you didn’t signal it after all) but I’ll stop there. Puck Daddy put up a great article on the same subject in response to Dowbiggin and I’d like to throw in my two cents too. Since it won’t all fit into PD’s or G&M’s comment pages, I’ll use this blog to do it.
Leaving ESPN was a risky proposition for the NHL and Gary Bettman. And looking back at it, it was absolutely the right move. As Greg Wyshynski notes, the book These Guys Have All The Fun features all of eight pages about the NHL. And those eight pages include some very pompous attitudes among those at ESPN including some quotes from ESPN personality Steve Levy –
“The people at VERSUS offered essentially more than twice what we did, and the NHL, and I believe this is shortsighted, took the money. And the League has made this mistake before over the years with that SportsChannel America. They got to make a few extra bucks, but nobody could see the games. It’s not as bad, but it’s somewhat similar. I’m constantly being told by players and the players’ association and the NHL that the guys are frustrated. Can’t get the games. Don’t know what channel it’s on. Can’t get it in the hotel when they’re on the road. They can’t watch their own sport. And in essence that’s driven a lot of people probably to ESPN because they can at least get the highlights and analysis. I think we’ve actually stepped up our hockey coverage since we haven’t had the sport.
I don’t believe we did anything wrong as a company, as a network. I thought we made a fair offer. Nobody promotes the game the way we do. I wouldn’t swear by the financial figures, but I think it meant, by going to VERSUS, an extra one million dollars per team. So it was a $30 million difference, or something like that. And I think that’s shortsighted for the lack of promotion and the lack of visibility for the sport.”
That attitude is one of the reasons that I’m glad the NHL bolted from Bristol. Levy’s comparison to SportsChannel America is silly. SportsChannel was barely carried on any cable company. It was largely a regional outfit that had its base in the Northeast. The same can’t be said for OLN. OLN was owned by perhaps the most powerful cable company in the country. And while OLN did have some carriage problems, it was largely available nationally, just on higher tiers than ESPN. SportsChannel had close to ZERO carriage. That wasn’t the case for OLN as most hockey fans could get it by either switching providers or moving to higher tiers. Not an ideal situation, but that was virtually impossible to do when it came to SportsChannel. The only place where Levy is right on is when talking about hotel rooms. I’ve noticed some hotels have added Versus but it’s still few and far in between. With that said, NBC now holds streaming rights so perhaps all games will be available online which will largely eliminate that problem.
Levy’s belief that people are tuning in to ESPN to see hockey analysis is laughable. (Note to Mr. Levy: there’s something called the internet where people can go get their NHL news and highlights without sitting through 56 minutes of other sports on SportsCenter) While ESPN does a good job online, its TV coverage has always been lousy when it comes to hockey. Even during games, ESPN spent most of the time during intermissions talking about sports besides hockey leaving Barry Melrose to just sit there at the side, twiddling his thumbs or laughing at lame jokes during highlights. ESPN never had a great marketing campaign for hockey and it’s only laudable move were it’s Hockey Rules broadcasts but they turned off the diehard viewers. Outside of that, the NHL was a key component in growing ESPN2, yet once ESPN2 gained nationwide carriage, the NHL was shunted off to the side and largely forgotten. Believe it or not, there was a time when ESPN2 barely had any nationwide carriage and the NHL was the first major pro league to air games there. In return, NHL2Night was later cancelled and poker got more coverage. That’s some great promotion for the league.
The fact is ESPN could never offer the NHL what Versus does. Many hockey fans don’t want the new NBCSN to pick up other sports for fear of hockey being bumped down the list. I certainly understand that feeling as the league experienced that with ESPN2. Bigger isn’t always better and I prefer to be with the smaller network if it means I get more hockey and better coverage. Versus and NBC have succeeded in doing that in every way possible. Levy’s comments are nothing but sour grapes and part of an elitist attitude that permeates throughout the ESPN hallways in Bristol. There’s no doubt that Versus is the better fit and the NHL should be applauded for making the ballsy move and going with a niche network even if everyone else thought they were crazy. It’s paid off in spades multiple ways, not just with the new NBC television contract. The future appears to be as bright for the NHL as it’s been in decades and it’s doing it all without ESPN. Perhaps ESPN isn’t as important as the people in Bristol think it is. One thing’s for sure, the NHL is bucking the trend of sports being on ESPN and I don’t think many hockey fans regret it one bit.