The news that the NHL would be issuing an announcement at 1 pm this afternoon spread across Twitter very quickly today. After a few jokes about what the news would actually be, it became clear that the announcement had to do with the NHL and their television contract. As more news came out, it was confirmed that the league has signed a new deal with NBC/Versus to keep their TV rights exactly where they are right now. The deal is rumored to be for ten years at $2 billion dollars.
The NHL tv contract has been a subject of heavy contention amoung many fans for the last few years. The biggest issue is that not everyone is able to get Versus through their local cable provider. NBC itself primarily only shows hockey games on winter weekends after the Super Bowl and the latter rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. When the contract was up, many fans were hoping that the NHL would return to ESPN.Â A lot of people are upset that that won’t be happening for the next decade.
I’m not one of those people. I am extremely glad to see the NHL enter into this new deal with NBC. The biggest reason I would not want hockey back on ESPN is because I remember how minimal their coverage of the sport was before the lockout in 2004-2005.Â For the regular season, hockey was shown once a week. The only time multiple games were covered on ESPN was during the Conference Finals & the Stanley Cup Finals. There are so many other sports given screen time on ESPN, I don’t see how it would be possible for them to give the NHL as much exposure as Versus.
Another reason I am glad to see hockey back with NBC is how much the broadcasts have improved. They’re not perfect, but they have come a long way from looking like they are broadcasting from a local cable channel studio. NBC has also helped to grow the game with their promotion of the Winter Classic. Outside of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Classic might be the NHL’s best property on the air waves. The sport’s visibility will increase even more under the new contract with Versus & NBC broadcasting 100 regular season games. A brand new feature will be the live broadcast of a hockey game on Thanksgiving Day. I have more non-hockey fans talking to me about the sport on New Year’s Eve thanks to NBC’s coverage of the outdoor game. I can see the Thanksgiving game going the same way.
It might not be a popular opinion, but I think that the sport of hockey will always be viewed as a niche sport in most of the United States. If they went back to ESPN, they wouldn’t be guaranteed as much television time just because of the competition with other sports. The NHL has been one of the few sports leagues to see marked growth both following a work stoppage and through the economic downturn. They have grown and become profitable by capitalizing on what makes them unique. I love the sport, but there is no way it would be able to win a ratings war with MLB or the NFL.Â By sticking with NBC, they are forging their own path and gaining visibility on their own terms. The leagues brass should be applauded for this decision.