NHL's TV Deal with NBC/Versus Isn't That Bad

Eric SylvesterContributor IApril 20, 2011

PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 09:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Conn Smythe Trophy to Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks after the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in overtime to win the Stanley Cup in Game Six of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Wachovia Center on June 9, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Yesterday the NHL signed a 10-year extension with NBC/Versus to continue hockey coverage on the network through 2021.

Immediately after hearing this, hockey fans across America poured themselves a tall glass of Haterade and began lambasting Bettman's decision to keep the NHL on Versus, rather than move it to ESPN.

Arguments have been made that the game will be better grown on ESPN, a station that obviously is more easily accessible and watched than Versus.

ESPN also has the advantage of owning a number of channels of distribution: ESPN 2, ESPN3.com, mobile broadcasting, etc.

However, I'll play devil's advocate and back the league's decision: the NHL has a better chance to thrive on NBC than it ever will on ESPN.

Hockey will always be the most niche sport of the major four, and runs parallel to the NBA. Anybody that has ever flipped on the Four Letter Word knows that there are two certainties for ESPN in late February: overhyped coverage of the NFL Combine, and the LeBron/Kobe-watch. 

The NBA will always take precedence in a battle between NBA and NHL playoff coverage. America loves basketball more than hockey; always has, always will.

To think that the NHL has the ability to garner a "fair" share of coverage is asinine. Carmelo Anthony dropping 42 points in a loss is going to get significantly more play than the Sharks' incredible five-goal comeback last night. Fair? No. True? Yes.

This isn't a scenario where "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" applies. Instead of playing second, third or fourth fiddle to other sports, the NHL is continuing to expand on a network that gives it front and center attention all season. 

Versus does more than just air the games.

They have hockey-centric analysis shows on a regular basis, which is something I refuse to believe ESPN would offer even if they picked up the league.

The NHL has a network to shine on with Versus.

If you want the game to grow, you have to give it the attention it deserves rather than burying into the back five minutes of conversation like ESPN has done in the past, even when they were televising games.

Furthermore, Bettman is betting on a winning horse here. This is a network that has increased NHL television ratings by nearly 84 percent, and was host to the most watched televised hockey game in the last 36 years in the 2011 Winter Classic.

Coverage is being increased to 100 regular season games for next season, and with coverage on NBC, Versus and the Comcast network, exposure to the game should be higher than ever.

NBC Sports Group Chairman Dick Ebersol summed it up best when combating the idea that ESPN makes every sport better:

"I think sometimes you benefit by being the only child."