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The NHL on Ice

ESPN bids the NHL adieu. Could things get any worse for pro hockey?

12:00 AM, Jun 10, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE'S long march to irrelevance continues apace. Last week, cable-sports king ESPN broke off negotiations with NHL execs and said it will move to schedule alternate programming for next season. This came just days after the network announced it would not exercise its $60-million option to claim broadcast rights if and when the 2005-2006 campaign gets underway. "We really had no choice," said Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive VP for programming and production. "We're not going to be held hostage like we were last season."

The NHL, you see, has never been very good to ESPN. Leave aside, for a moment, pro hockey's ongoing labor spat, which cost the league its 2004-2005 season. The roots of the NHL-ESPN partnership date back to the network's founding in 1979. ESPN briefly held the cable broadcast rights to NHL contests during the 1980s--until the league dumped ESPN in 1988 and chose to go with Sports Channel instead. At the time, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said sticking with ESPN would've been "better for the game." "Sure, we got more money from Sports Channel," the Great One wrote in his 1990 autobiography, "but how much did we lose in exposure?"

Good point, and one that NHL suits quickly took note of. ESPN regained the cable broadcast rights to NHL action in 1992. This time, the network's choice proved felicitous. Hockey's popularity skyrocketed following the New York Rangers' gripping Stanley Cup run in 1994. Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of "the coolest game on earth." But over the past several years, the talent pool has been diluted by near-constant league expansion, scoring has plunged, the games have gotten slow and boring, and TV ratings have sunk. The heady days of the mid 1990s seem a distant memory.

Then, of course, there was the 2004-2005 lockout. The NHL became the first pro sports league in North America to forfeit an entire season due to a labor dispute. ESPN had to fill scads of empty timeslots with substitute programs. And, as Reuters reported last week, the network discovered that programming "it aired in place of NHL games on a month-to-month basis during the canceled season did just as well or better than hockey would have."

Even despite all that, ESPN offered a last-minute compromise. It would buy year-long broadcasting rights from the NHL--but for "well below half of $60 million," according to Shapiro. The league demurred, refusing to budge from its $60-million asking price. Said Bernadette Mansur, the NHL's communications VP, "We're not interested in devaluing the product any further."

True, a lesser deal--one for, say, $15 or $20 million per season--would have meant harsh revenue losses for the league's 30 clubs. But at least it would've been something. As it stands now, with ESPN's apparent exit, NHL teams stand to lose $2 million apiece. How's that for "devaluing the product"?

There's been talk that another channel--Spike TV, maybe, or Fox Sports Net--could pick up the national cable broadcast rights to the NHL for 2005-2006. But it's hard to believe any network would plunk down $60 million. Especially given the uncertainty of the season--it may start late--and the fact that ratings for the league had plummeted by the end of 2003-2004. (Small wonder ABC opted not to renew its NHL contract.)

All in all, things couldn't get much worse for the NHL. "The departure of ESPN," wrote William Houston in Toronto's Globe and Mail, "marks rock bottom for the league in terms of American TV rights." The league "lost its only remaining U.S. television rights holder." Which means, as Bloomberg News reported, the NHL is left "without a national cable television partner for the first time since the late 1970s."

Pro hockey has--or perhaps, I should say, "had"--come a long way since the '70s, maturing from a cult sport with regional fans to a league with national popularity and a bevy of teams even in the Sunbelt. But now the NHL has shot itself in the foot, and seems to be aiming for other, more vital body parts.

Without a big-name cable-TV partner, and with the ever-present specter of labor strife, the league risks tumbling further and further into obscurity. It is already well on the way to cementing its second-class status in American sports. NHL execs should recall that Major League Baseball--which, besides being the national pastime, has always had a much broader fan base than pro hockey, along with a ubiquitous TV presence--didn't recover its pre-strike popularity until the McGwire-Sosa home run race in 1998.