It's Time for the NHL to Return To ESPN

S BCorrespondent IMay 4, 2010

CHICAGO - MAY 03: Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League speaks at a press conference before the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Vancouver Canucks in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center on May 3, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Mediaweek is reporting ESPN and ABC are supposedly interested in getting NHL broadcast rights back from Versus and NBC .

The NHL needs to make this happen.

Versus has tried to be good to the NHL

They've given it prominent placement on their network.

They've promoted the NHL online and offline.

And the NHL has seen a slight uptick in ratings.

But it's just not enough.

Not enough households get Versus.

The lack of mainstream exposure contributes to the NHL's reputation as a lower-tier sports league.

ESPN instantly lends credibility to the NHL.  A contract with the network sends a message that the league matters in American sports, and allows for the possibility that the NHL could become more of a mainstream sport.

The NHL doesn't need to be a mainstream success to survive. But it sure would make things easier if it were more of a mainstream success. Mainstream success brings fans into arenas and fans in arenas put money in the pockets of franchises. And money helps to pay players.

If the NHL can get back together with ESPN/ABC, they'll not only have television exposure, but online exposure and print exposure. The game will reach lots of eyes they just can't get to with Versus.

ESPN has hardly ignored hockey since the NHL left for Versus. You still see plenty of hockey clips on SportsCenter. You still have Barry Melrose, looking more and more like a conquistador, and Steve Levy breaking down big games. But it's not always enough. It sometimes feels perfunctory — like ESPN wants to cover hockey but doesn't feel totally invested.

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Having an NHL package would help ESPN feel invested, allowing the network to spend even more time on hockey.

The NHL doesn't need ESPN in the sense that the league won't survive without the sports network. The league is perfectly viable relying on Versus. But is viability enough? Is survival enough? Shouldn't the league want more? Shouldn't the greatest sport be played on as large a stage as possible?

The league seems to like being on Versus because the NHL is Versus' top priority. Versus does the NHL well because they need the NHL. There simply isn't enough rodeo action for Versus to work without the NHL.

For ESPN, the NHL wouldn't be their top priority. But games would be broadcast. Games would be watched. And sports fans who might not watch hockey could discover the beautiful game.

ESPN wouldn't make the NHL its highest priority but it presents the sport with potential for growth.  Post-lockout hockey is fast and furious. It's much more watchable than the pre-lockout, defense-oriented game. The game has grown, simply by being on Versus and NBC. Imagine how it could grow with the help of ESPN.

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