Will the NHL be back on ESPN?
They say timing is everything.
After years of being ignored and ridiculed, the NHL is poised to reap the benefits of a major US television deal—something that could very well be argued is an absolute necessity to keep the game viable and continue its growth throughout the United States.
With potential doom looming over the NFL and NBA as work stoppages seem to be more than rumor, the National Hockey League could very well be in a position to bring hockey to Americans through a major television network for the first time in quite some time.
While work stoppages have plagued the NHL in its recent past, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman knows that right now might be the prime opportunity of the NHL, as potential work stoppages in the NFL and NBA may occur.
This might also be a once in a lifetime shot at securing a major long-term US TV deal.
Before the NHL goes head first into potential options, there are some things that the league should consider doing first in conjunction with any potential TV deal.
No, we are not going to bring up any glowing pucks or fancy outside winter games...those things are all done with the intent to build and grow the game. You have to admire them for what they are. Some work, and some go horribly wrong.
What network would you like to see the NHL on:
While the NHL has tried many unique ways to bring the game to Americans, sometimes the simplest and most straightforward approach could be the league's best option.
I'm sure many will agree that a good product on the ice is key, and the NHL has made numerous changes to encourage a better product—everything from rule changes to the introduction of a salary cap. The NHL has attempted to improve upon the game without taking anything away from it, rather trying to enhance the game.
That sometimes is easier said than done. Sometimes you need help from others in order to do that.
But while the NHL brass begins the process of securing that long-awaited major US TV deal, there still is some homework that the NHL needs to do before it can become the success it has envisioned.
While the NHL hasn't obtained a major US network contract as of yet, it has been a trailblazer in other areas of media distribution.
The NHL was one of the first sports leagues to embrace the Internet, create its own TV network and embrace fantasy sports. It was also one of the pioneers in satellite radio distribution with XM Radio.
Capitalizing on newer trends and technology, the NHL was able to provide different means for fans to gain access to games, highlights and news. That legacy continues today.
If not watching hockey, do you watch...
Now, almost every major professional sports league has "cross-promotion."
Cross-promotion allows leagues like the NFL, probably the best league at doing this, to continually build their brand while featuring their key property—football games as the centerpiece.
Moving key games to their own TV network and providing pre- and postgame information on both the Internet and their own network allows the sports fan to be engaged in the entire event. Overall it holds fans' keen interest in the game and sport and makes them look forward to next week's action.
After the NBA became the first North American sports league to introduce a network—NBA TV—the NHL followed by introducing NHL Network in October of 2001, followed by its American version in 2007. Soon after, MLB and NFL also followed and launched their respective networks.
But the NHL, once the trailblazer of sports league technology, has now seen other pro sports surpass them. These other leagues, in conjunction with a major US TV deal, expand and direct fans to various areas for league information, games and breaking news.
By tying in all sources of media, the NHL can follow a game plan that has helped other sports leagues build and maintain their brands.
NHL Network is:
It is imperative that the NHL look at all options while looking to find the right partnership for such a venture.
Here are some recommendations the NHL should consider.
Revamp NHL Network
NHL Network is a consortium held by the NHL along with some NHL teams and two networks. The channel has a Canadian and American version, which allows for great opportunities.
The Canadian channel is owned by TSN (The Sports Network), the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators and the NHL, all owning 20 percent, and uses the TSN broadcast center in Toronto, Ontario.
In the US, Comcast and the NHL own the channel and use some programming from NHL Network Canada. They also offer Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights from CBC. Both channels work together on content like highlights and special features like covering the Winter Classic, the NHL draft and trade deadline amongst others.
In order for the NHL to move forward, NHL Network needs to be revamped and taken in a new direction.
The NHL needs to use this network—first by getting it into more American households and then by making the NHL Network the premier place for pre- and postgame reaction and highlights, something the network does with some success with its NHL On the Fly segment, which airs nightly, and NHL On the Fly: Final, a highlight recap show replayed daily.
NHL CI / GameCenter Live is:
MLB and the NFL have done amazing jobs at building this type of content. They also expand on games and provide deep analysis.
We have all seem the football style pregame shows; MLB Network will have pregame breakdowns of all the day's action. This is something that NHL Network doesn't do at all, rather leaving that to major TV sports channels or researching the Internet—a major missed opportunity.
There are some simulcast XM Radio shows provided on NHL Network. Twice daily NHL Live and NHL Power Play make their way onto NHL Network.
The league already spends a good deal of money in Canada alone with deals with TSN and CBC, Canada's major private and public broadcasters, but there should be more "homegrown" content generated for the channel.
The NHL needs to take a stab at the 5-7 pm time slot and generate interest in each night's games. Trading off with TSN, CBC or a major US TV network on certain nights would give fans a continual carousel of hockey content.
NHL Center Ice package
Limitations to the NHL Center Ice package need to be addressed as well. Making it available on the Internet known as NHL GameCenter, NHL CI/GameCenter could also stand a few more bells and whistles. Overall GameCenter Live is a nice product, but NHL CI needs a bit more attention.
There are several issues with NHL CI. While blackouts are part of the negotiated terms of individual NHL teams selling their game rights to regional broadcasters, part of the problem stems from the fact that more games need to be available in a team's individual market. This is based on ticket sales lifting the blackout restrictions.
However, NHL CI needs to a do a better job getting the games that fans want to them. That might still be the challenge, but clearer defining territories and areas need to be addressed.
NHL CI has come a long way. Only a handful of games are not broadcast during the season, and HD has certainly helped the appeal of hockey to new fans. Moving forward the NHL needs all games televised in HD, an issue they have been currently working towards.
The NHL needs to do more and needs to take more control of its games and how they are broadcast.
Every game on NHL CI/GameCenter cuts off every game at its conclusion—directly after a thrilling overtime goal or shootout save that wins the game. This provides no postgame show/reaction whatsoever.
It's my understanding that the league only has rights on CI/GameCenter to use the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche pre/postgame shows. The NHL has lost a key opportunity here.
Not all fans reside in the area where their favorite team is based. Not being based in Pittsburgh after a Penguins win as you reside in Nevada doesn't allow you to get the postgame reaction after a thrilling victory—a lost opportunity here to keep fans interested.
The league needs to do a better job of providing content for a package that fans spend far enough money on. The NHL CI channel that provides updated scores is hit and miss sometimes—yet another lost opportunity.
The challenge remains securing a major US TV deal. The NHL has an excellent opportunity here to create a new platform for its fans. While all things take time, it's my hope that the NHL looks at the big picture and takes ownership of its hockey properties and continues to strive to provide hockey fans with the best content it can both on and off the ice.
Using some of the properties that the NHL already has in place is a start. Now is the time to bring NHL hockey full circle.
Best of luck, NHL. I know we the fans will benefit if it's done properly.
Mike MacDonald is a Featured Columnist covering the Nashville Predators and the NHL.