The NHL had a chance. A chance to do something right, albeit at a slight financial loss. It should come as no surprise to any of us, considering the recently completed year of empty nets, that the NHL blew this chance.
The sports TV behemoth that is ESPN wanted to continue broadcasting NHL games for the coming season, like it has in the past. The lockout hurt, yes, but the Worldwide Leader was willing to take hockey back and help fans remember that the NHL is indeed worth following.
The catch? The cost. ESPN, rightly arguing that NHL games are of a much lower value now than in recent years, didn't want to pay as much as it had in the past for the broadcast rights. So the network declined in June to pick up a $60 million option on its already existing contract, then, as expected, passed on matching the league's two-year offer from Comcast Corp., which owns the Outdoor Life Network (OLN).
Comcast will pay the NHL $65 million this year and $70 million in 2006-07 to show between 58 and 78 regular-season games, as well as conference quarterfinals and finals, and Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. ESPN had until Wednesday night to match Comcast's terms.
This is all great news for OLN, a growing and well-produced network trying to capitalize on the rousing success it has enjoyed through televising the Tour de France live. For the NHL, however, the departure from ESPN is not good.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league executives would probably argue that the loss in capital coming directly from ESPN due to the lower contract terms made the OLN deal a no-brainer. This contention is along the same line of thought that says the league didn't hurt itself by locking out the players.
Just as baseball had to scratch and claw back to respectability in the minds of its fans in the late-1990s, hockey must do the same thing here. The NHL must accept a loss in the eyes of its consumers, and until that happens, it cannot move forward and close the chapter on the lost season " which was, lest we forget, the first outright season cancellation in the history of North American professional sports.
ESPN recognizes this, because ESPN is the one forking over millions. OLN is in a slightly different position; it is still a business decision with boatloads of money at stake, but OLN was bidding to get into the game for a first time, not trying to maintain its product at a cost that made sense relative to years past.
Yet on that note, the reason this news is not good for the NHL is due to the entity ESPN has become. American sports fans " and, increasingly, global sports fans " live and die by the Worldwide Leader. For many, the channel rarely changes except during commercial breaks.
Having your league broadcast by ESPN means increased coverage on highlight shows, increased features and analysis, increased marketing in front of eyes ready to commit to whatever ESPN is selling.
None of that factors into the bottom-line deal, per se, but it is all worth plenty in its own right " especially now, in the case of the NHL, when face time for the league and its players is more important than it has ever been.
Make no mistake, hockey will slowly rebound. And we will tune in to see it happen, be it once a day, once a week or once a month.
But that is only because the game is a worthy watch " certainly not because anyone running the world's highest level of play is making the right decisions.
Devon O'Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.