Remember Hockey? ESPN and the Demise of NHL Relevance

Bryan HoltCorrespondent IJune 10, 2009

Friday night will bring one of the most magnificent spectacles in all of sports. Game Seven of a championship series is a rare phenomenon that can draw in the most indifferent of casual fans and thrill spectators everywhere.

For the NHL, the scenario is remarkably refreshing.

A seemingly forgotten organization, the NHL is forced to crave opportunities for exposure. The unified sense of apathy that the mainstream American sports world typically showers hockey with makes the Pittsburgh Penguins' and Detroit Red Wings' quests for a Stanley Cup incredibly important for the sport.

The NHL has been run into the ground for a number of reasons. It has experienced some of the worst league management in professional sports, hurt its product through unnecessary rule changes, and expanded too far away from its core fanbase. However, the NHL continues to suffer most from a disastrous 2005 divorce.

On May 29, 2005, ESPN notified the NHL that it would not exercise a contract option to televise games for the 2005-06 season. The announcement was a life-threatening blow to an already crippled league. The NHL was forced to limp backwards to a cable television deal with the then-Outdoor Life Network—a major step down from the "Worldwide Leader in Sports."

The effect this move would have on the NHL seemed rather obvious.

ESPN has become something of a synonym for American sports. With no real national competition, they have the unique ability to direct the American sports fan toward what sports are "important" and what sports are not. It is no surprise that the leagues with which ESPN is affiliated with are promoted much more heavily than others.

By retreating to the station that is now known as Versus, the NHL has become the only trace of a major American professional sports league that is not in some way under contract with ESPN. This not only leads to the obvious absence of hockey games on the most watched sports network, but also to an extremely limited amount of hockey programming or mention of the NHL on ESPN.

There is no more NHL 2Night or ESPN National Hockey Night, and NHL highlights on SportsCenter have been reduced to a short segment with Barry Melrose quickly running through the scores and showing clips of the occasional fight. Most NHL stories that gain exposure are negative and about how badly the NHL is failing.

The constant bad press has led to an even steeper decline for the league.

This is primarily a result of the NHL falling out of favor with the convenient sports mega-corporation that is ESPN. Hockey's television performance has been far surpassed by newer ESPN clients such as NASCAR, ESPN's latest hot free agent. 

The television struggles of the NHL have crept into the arenas where attendance is often sub-par, and many are questioning if the NHL is still part of the "big four" of professional sports leagues in North America.

Even the occasionally classic Stanley Cup Finals are overshadowed by the concurrent NBA Finals. Chances are, unless you are a die-hard hockey fan, the Magic-Lakers series has been on your mind much more in the last week than anything to do with the Penguins and Red Wings. 

This feeling is only increased when you turn on SportsCenter at night and see 30 minutes of NBA coverage, compared to a brief analysis skit by Melrose.

Unfortunately for commissioner Gary Bettman and friends, the future looks almost as dim for the NHL as it did four years ago. Versus has failed even to resemble the major cable network that Bettman once prayed it would become, and the NHL looks to be just another struggling program on NBC's flailing prime-time lineup.

While the NHL can only hope for some form of positive change, the constant in this equation is definitely ESPN. As long as there is a male gender and a demand for 24-hour sports coverage, ESPN will lead the way in bringing all leagues together in one unified place.

Even those who complain about this will likely end up tuning in, and ESPN knows this. They have built a dependency for the everyday sports fan.

All the NHL can do is attempt to overcome this, or find their way back into the good graces of Bristol, Connecticut. Otherwise, they can expect to continue being left out of the elite club of successful North American sports leagues.


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