Why ESPN airing KHL Is a Slap in the face to the NHL

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Why ESPN airing KHL Is a Slap in the face to the NHL
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ESPN's decision to broadcast KHL games during the NHL lockout is a slap in the face to the world's best hockey league and its commissioner, Gary Bettman.

When the NHL locked out its players following the 2003-04 season, ESPN was the league's national cable television rights holder, which was a big deal for the NHL because it needed a major cable network to help grow in United States markets.

Like hockey fans everywhere, ESPN wasn't happy that the league and its players were unable to reach a new CBA in time to save the 2004-05 season. ESPN was benefiting from its NBA, MLB and NFL and college football television deals at the time, and didn't need the NHL and much as the NHL needed ESPN.

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Following the lockout, the NHL and ESPN no longer had a television agreement, and the league began its partnership with NBC Sports, which included games on the Outdoor Life Network (later Versus and now NBC Sports Network).

Since the lockout, it's hard to imagine that the league's relationship with ESPN is any better than it was in 2005. Watching the network quickly make a deal with the KHL to give hockey fans in North America a place to watch NHL stars during the lockout must have made Bettman angry.

ESPN was willing to air KHL games, but not the NHL when it had the opportunity to acquire its television rights. The announcement of ESPN's deal with the KHL couldn't have been received well at the NHL offices in New York City.

When a network you don't like signs a deal with your league's biggest rival, you're not going to be pleased, and having KHL games available to hockey fans in the United States via ESPN while the lockout is ongoing is embarrassing for the NHL.

Not only does it remind people that there is good hockey in other leagues, broadcasting these games helps people forget about the NHL and focus on the good hockey that they wouldn't normally watch if the NHL was playing.

Showing these KHL games also increases the amount of coverage that ESPN dedicates to hockey, which was already very small. Even when the NHL playoffs are happening, programs like SportsCenter spent very little time talking about NHL games.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Gary Bettman

Of all the sports/events that ESPN doesn't have television rights to, the NHL probably gets the least amount of positive coverage. When ESPN has talked about hockey during the lockout, most of the discussion has been on when/where KHL games will be shown, not when the NHL's work stoppage will end. 

ESPN probably could have found other programs and/or live sports to showcase on ESPN2 and ESPN3 to help make the network money, but it chose to fill certain time slots with KHL games, thus taking a shot at the league that didn't take their offer for television rights in 2011.

By making a deal with the KHL, ESPN made a real effort to make fun of the NHL. It was a slap in the face, but at least the NHL can be happy about their current deal with NBC Sports, and the insane amount of money that the league will make when the Canadian TV rights expire in 2014.

The best way for the NHL to respond to ESPN's deal with the KHL is to make a new CBA and end the lockout, but that doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon.

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