The New NHL TV Deal Debate… More Great Options Than Ever

Read the opposing argument from Sports Geek

I have to argue that hockey should be a hot property for television. That seems crazy to your average sports fan, but your average sports fan is used to consuming ESPN. ESPN crafts very nice, friendly highlight packages for NHL games… but that is the extent of its coverage. Versus crafts detailed, well-produced national coverage for NHL games, but only two-thirds of the national cable audience gets Versus, and few know where to find it. I have to argue that larger networks should invest in a niche sport and promote it – but they should. I know I’m right. Let me prove why.

When the contributors behind sent out this week’s topic list, the first line of the reference article for the hockey ratings debate told the tale. Plain and simple, the NHL ended last season with its best television rating for a game in thirty-six years. That, in and of itself, indicates a healthy and growing product that the league should promote. It’s a difficult conflict for the league – it appreciates Versus as a loyal (and paying) business partner, but there is only so much home penetration with a network like Versus.

Easy, says my opponent, who is determined to argue against my point. Some regular season games, and many playoff games, were on NBC, and even a test pattern on NBC will usually pull a 1.0 (with apologies to Jay Leno’s 10p show, may it rest in peace). However, game six of the Stanley Cup Finals drew a 4.7 rating. NASCAR on Fox, the nation’s universally respected number two spectator sport, drew an average 4.8 rating for the early portion of the 2010 Sprint Cup season. Though contract numbers are not always exact, based on the value of the NASCAR TV contract (across multiple networks), the NHL is severely undervalued as a television entity.

Stepping away from the statistical facts, think about where sports in America are headed. We like violent sports and we like sports that are easily delivered in HD. The NHL on a basic cable/network contract fits that bill easily. While hockey is taking necessary steps to curb unnecessary violence in the game, it is, by necessity, a fast and violent game. At its root, hockey is a simple game that translates well to adequate broadcast booths. The excitement of the game (especially late in the season and during the playoffs) translates well to the short attention span of today’s television sports viewer. Beyond that, there are many television networks trying to gain a toehold into sports viewing (think about Turner Sports’ play for the baseball playoffs and NCAA tournament). The sports viewing landscape is no longer ESPN or bust. In fact, knowledgeable observers can picture the NHL on a number of non-ESPN properties, and I think the NHL is salivating at that possibility. While the league has carefully cultivated quality studio and play-by-play personnel on Versus, I suspect the league’s strong endorsement of those personnel would translate very well to any broadcast network.

Given the low-rated sports programming on the ESPN family networks (bowling, poker, etc.), the NHL would be a solid investment. The league would be an inexpensive investment given other properties and the NHL is looking for a growth opportunity on a network that will promote the league to most cable homes. As much as I appreciate the Versus broadcasts, any large network (ESPN, Turner networks, etc.) will incorporate homegrown talent capable of distributing to an existing audience, which is clear judging by the ratings for last season’s Stanley Cup Finals. This seems like the perfect opportunity for a broadcast entity to buy rights fairly low and reap the advertising revenue and ratings fairly high. The question is, who will take advantage of this rare opportunity?

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