The NHL will announce today its new broadcasting deal with NBC/Comcast.Â The previous deal, which was reached in May of 2004, required NBC to air at least six weeks of regular season games in addition to Stanley Cup Playoffs games.Â The games of the Stanley Cup Finals would all air on NBC.
This deal is expected to be a similar structure.Â The deal pays the league 2 billion dollars over ten years, ensuring that coverage of professional hockey will remain on NBC and Versus for the next decade.Â Other media conglomerates in the running were Fox, Turner, and ABC/ESPN.Â In the end, it came down to ABC/ESPN and NBC/Versus, and the league chose money and loyalty over an effort to reach more viewers.
This new deal has been anticipated for months.Â With the growth in interest the NHL has seen in recent years, particularly after the Vancouver Olympics, the landscape looked different for them than it did in May 2004, when a looming lockout scared ABC away from renewing it’s deal.Â That weak position was the reason that NBC had to pay no upfront rights fee in that deal.
With the merger of NBC and Comcast, the umbrella now includes Comcast Sports Net networks in local markets and NBC and Versus nationally.Â This is by no means a bad deal for the NHL, who get their first billion-dollar broadcasting agreement ever.Â But when considering what could have been, did they make the right decision in passing over ABC?
The exact figures of the proposed ABC/ESPN deal are not yet known.Â However, according to sources high in the ESPN structure, they wanted this deal badly.
“Hockey’s hot right now,” said the source. “and we want to get it back, but for the right price.”
This implies that ABC was simply outbid by NBC.Â There are other factors that likely contributed to the league’s decision as well, including rising ratings with the current deal and loyalty to NBC, who picked up the league when all other outlets were running away.
It is still difficult to deny the kind of exposure an ESPN deal would have given for the growing game.Â There was some concern in the hockey world that should ESPN win the rights, it would be much like the old National Hockey Night on ESPN, where just one game per week was aired on the main channel while up to five games per week were offered on ESPN2.Â However, reports are that ESPN was planning on expanding it’s coverage from seven years ago, airing multiple games per week on the network and pairing it with a weekly game on ABC, much like NBC’s current Game of the Week.
On the surface, it appears the league was left with the decision between more money and more viewers, choosing the money and loyalty.Â What is overlooked is the potential numbers and profits an ESPN deal would have given the NHL.
It would give the game much more exposure, and not just through pure viewership.Â Even if ESPN stuck to its broadcasting plan of seven years ago and only aired one game a week on the main network, there are other aspects to consider.Â If they had the broadcasts, ESPN would spend much more time covering hockey.
We are seeing it now with soccer.Â ESPN now holds broadcasting rights for MLS soccer, and the number of soccer highlights shown on Sports Center and in the “Top 10″ has gone up.Â The same would be true for hockey.Â ESPN would now have an incentive to spend more time on hockey because it would promote its own programming.Â That in itself would be a win for the league, since ESPN essentially sets the pace for other sports news outlets.
The then increased energy surrounding hockey would then, theoretically, increase ticket and merchandise sales, perhaps even help saving some of the struggling U.S. franchises.Â The bottom line is that casual sports fans believe that if it isn’t on ESPN, it’s not a real sport.Â A deal with the network would have changed that.
Until the numbers and structure are released in the coming days, it will be difficult to fully evaluate the deal.Â The truth is that hockey is doing fine on it’s current deal.Â However, Gary Bettman doesn’t want to look back in three years and think, “What would life be like on ESPN?”