The NHL and ESPN have a complicated relationship.
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They had some good times, like in the 1990s, when Gary Thorne and Bill Clement were bringing weekly national games to hockey-starved viewers, and the under-appreciated gem that was “NHL2Night” on ESPN2 was thriving.
They had some not-so-good times, like in the 2000s, when Texas Hold’em Poker was the new pretty face at the dance and the NHL’s place on ESPN’s plate was like a deflated corn niblet pushed to the edges as the WWL ate up meatier properties.
And they had some downright chilly times, after the NHL bolted for Outdoor Life Network (which became VERSUS, which became NBC Sports Network) and ESPN committed about as much time covering hockey as it does commemorating the memory of ESPN: The Phone.
But with the exhibition games for the World Cup of Hockey streaming on ESPN3 on Thursday, and Team North American appearing on ESPN2 on Thursday night, the NHL is officially back in bed with ESPN for the next few weeks.
Steven Whyno of the AP wrote about the reunion on Thursday, and received a familiar refrain from ESPN’s lead hockey voice Steve Levy about the availability difference between the NHL’s current rights-holder NBC and with ESPN:
“How can you be a big-time sport in the states and not be on ESPN? I think that’s the part that’s tough for a lot of people to understand,” Levy said. “I can tell you the players themselves get frustrated. They’re on the road, in hotels, and they can’t watch their own games, they can’t watch action from around the league. Some of the people that have the (NBC Sports Network) channel, they don’t know what number it is. It just seems very different than ESPN where you know exactly where you’re going at all times.”
Now, this has gotten better – a lot better, actually – over the years. NBCSN has plenty of basic cable clearance and availability in hotel rooms. Levy’s point is a fair one, but “how can you be a big-time sport in the states and not be on ESPN” is a bit much. (More on that in a bit.)
Barry Melrose, Levy’s long-time partner on ESPN, made the more salient point, I think:
“When you walk into a bar, you walk into a restaurant, you walk into any place in the United States or basically the world, ESPN’s on,” former NHL coach and current ESPN analyst Barry Melrose said. “We still have that over any other sports network in the world: the fact that we’re on just about everywhere all the time.”
This is a demonstrable fact, not only in sports bars and pubs, but in your TGI Friday’s and Applebee’s and any number of other possessive eateries. It’s a fair point, and one that not only speaks to a lack of games on ESPN but a lack of hockey coverage on the network’s SportsCenter and scream-talk shows.
Now, the lack of coverage on ESPN is something we’ve covered many times before. It speaks to a perceived lack of interest from hockey fans about anything that doesn’t pertain to their own team, which is ESPN’s theory. But it also speaks to a self-fulfilling prophecy that’s been developing at ESPN since the 2005 lockout: When you don’t cater to hockey fans, they’re going to stop watching you for hockey coverage, or at least become conditioned to know there won’t be any.
So hockey fans don’t watch, hockey fans don’t complain, and ESPN assumes its audience doesn’t need hockey. The circle is complete.
Now, on that Levy point, about “how can you be a big-time sport in the states and not be on ESPN?”: There’s one facet of that with which we can agree on.
A few years into the NHL/NBC deal, it’s rather obvious that casting all of its lots with NBC wasn’t in the NHL’s best interests, which is one of the reasons the World Cup of Hockey has ended up on ESPN. The NFL, the NBA and MLB all have multi-network deals in the U.S. That the NHL doesn’t provided them with a financial windfall from NBC for exclusivity, but closed off other potential audiences on other networks. (We still think an NHL game on SPIKE TV would have been aces, if it could have incorporated Jon Taffer, of course.)
According to Whyno, “Melrose and Levy suggested ESPN and NBC could at some point share coverage like other sports.”