Sunday, April 6, 2008

How to Make Hockey Popular Part 2: Keep it on Versus

While Devo feels that the NHL should go back to ESPN, I do not share those same sentiments. ESPN treated the NHL as if it were a bastard child with little or no support or help. Sure they would air the games but would they market it? Nope. Would they do a pregame segment on it? Hell no. Would they even promote the game? Even that was relatively cold. How about sportcenter highlights in general? Nope. Oh but heck when it was 1994, ESPN loved the NHL. Quest for the Cup was on an hour before the opening faceoff and they gave it tons of post game attention. Those were the days. ESPN has obviously found better ways to spend its programming on other important things like TO, World Poker Tour, and the trials and tribulations of Dick Trickle.

ESPN had every reason to dump hockey. The NHL was in shambles; boring play coupled with too many teams and not enough talent. The ratings were on par with that of World Poker Tour and Golden Girls reruns. They had every right to sweep it under the rug.

Luckily after the lockout, Bettman realized this and wanted to propel the league onto it’s own network where it would be the focus; where hockey would get the attention that it deserves as it attempted to rebuild its image and bring back the fans.

Surely, there were high barriers to adoption of a new network but diehard NHL fans will do whatever it takes to watch their team and if the fact that Versus/OLN is in the 100s of most cable station channels causes it to be lost well so be it. In 2006, Gary Bettman gave the following statement in the Wall Street Journal:

Bettman states, “We knowingly gave up some distribution in the short term for better coverage of our games. The treatment that Versus gives us is phenomenal. Last year in the playoffs, every night was all NHL. There was wall-to-wall coverage, with double-headers. There was ancillary hockey programming and movies. The intermissions were devoted to hockey. There was extended post-game coverage every night. So in terms of how we were treated, we couldn't have been happier. We knew, at least in the short term, that while Versus was growing, we were going to have to give up some distribution to get that. They've increased, since we've been with them, by over seven million homes.”

While the ESPN networks reach a number of homes, could the NHL really sustain itself with one game a week during the regular season? Not to mention fighting with other major sports like Football, Baseball, Basketball, Golf, heck even Poker. Does ESPN honestly believe that they can have everything and give each adequate amount of time that each network believes? Please. You think ESPN could break away from 24/7 Terrell Owens coverage for 3 minutes to show Crosby vs. Ovechkin? No way! Do you believe ESPN would even show highlights of hockey anymore? Quite frankly, I’m sure others can attest to this, but did they even show highlights of hockey on Sportscenter towards the end of the partnership? They’d show scores but for hockey to catch on with JOE A.D.D here in America, they need the highlights. Big hits, clutch saves, and defensive stick checks should all be a part of a hockey network’s coverage. The hockey fan doesn’t want to see just a simple scoreboard. We want to see what happened in a game like they do with baseball or football – Tell the story of the game and what led to the end result.

Furthermore, has ESPN even marketed the game? Let’s be honest here you would hear about hockey as being the ugly stepchild of the other major sports. How can ESPN promote a sport when it’s own columnists, writers, TV hosts berate it for being awful etc. Granted, pre lockout hockey was an abysmal trap fest compared to the free-flowing early 90s and beyond but still. ESPN also wouldn’t showcase some of the lesser known teams. We would see numerous Stars, Red Wing, Avalanche contests in the west as well as Rangers, Devils and Flyers contest in the east. Now am I arguing that these games shouldn’t be shown? – Of course not. What I am saying is that ESPN could have showed us an Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto game where some of the league’s more marketable stars (Sundin, Iginla, etc.) were all dominating opponents.

This is not to say that OLN/VS network is without faults. Shoddy production values, poor camera angles, average announcers among others but they are improving. The production values are now up there with what ESPN was offering. The playoff coverage from the past playoffs were top notch and the broadcasting of TSN games was also a brilliant idea. Furthermore, hitching a ride to the TSN serves as a model for which VS can try to aspire to be; TSN hockey broadcasts are far and away the best in the business.

Most importantly though, hockey is finally the focal point of a network in America. Sure the production levels aren’t top notch or the announcers aren’t of the highest caliber. That can all improve. But arguing that the game of hockey on ESPN would be better is asinine. Hopefully with the ushering out of the outdoor life brand, we can finally get a new legitimacy to the network and thereby strengthening the look and visibility of hockey. People from all over the country can now witness hockey as it was meant to be. It is a major sport and Vs. gives it the coverage it needs. Versus combines coverage with hockey movies, stories, and highlight shows that give us everything we could ask for. Combine this with the new NHL network (which unlike it’s NFL equivalent is readily accessible to the average fan) along with the removal of the whole outdoor redneck value and the raising number of cable TV companies providing VS. to their subscribers, and maybe the rest of the US will catch on. As a fan of the sport of hockey, I couldn’t be happier. Now if ESPN would be willing to showcase only one game a week than by all means let them have it though that ABC vs. NBC thing might screw everything up.

I’m sure ESPN would be interested in few games here or there, but for them to take back the majority of the broadcast coverage would be retarded decision. I don’t want to miss the hockey playoffs to watch some meaningless Cardinal / Astro baseball game in April or Knicks vs. Bobcats lottery pick showdown. Keep it on Versus where I can enjoy my hockey coverage. Blame Bettman for a lot of things but sticking with Versus shouldn’t be one of them.



Maureen said...


Jeff said...

In 5 years ESPN will be to sports what MTV is now to music. ITS ALL ABOUT THE MONEY!!!.

ESPN has fallen into a sports marketing trap and the exact turning point came with the acquisition of Monday Night Football. Since then the NFL is ESPNs biggest payoff and therefor most covered sport.

Now, lets also salt this with the garbage they throw on everyday like Poker, or who is the biggest sports celebrity. Oh yea and can anyone remember 50 States & 50 Days. Hey can you whore out to Miller or Budweiser some more. I know! Why don't you just have your pompous thick headed sports caster pop a cold on the show. At least then maybe they will provide some real entertainment by being the belligerent dip-$hits they all really are.

Here is why Hockey has impressed me. Its enjoyable to watch, not 5 HRS of TV ads like the NFL. Honestly I don't even think I'll sit down to watch one NFL game this year, that league is out of control with its advertising privileges. Baseball, is tainted in drugs, we can't even enjoy watching a player slug toward the home run record. NBA, ahhh is that even a real league or a bunch of hoodlums playing street ball making too much money. Hey Lebron put down the baby powder and go do your job. That guy might be a great ball player, but jokester for being such a ham, will you ever see a hockey platey pull that crap, NOPE! Plus who cares about the NBA you have college anyway.

Hockey has a great viewing experience and most of what is left as far integrity goes for the 4 major sports.

If Sportscenter...oh wait I mean Adcenter wants to put on a show for the NFL and MLB...oh wait sorry I mean Yankees & Red Sox, have at it! Whatever builds viewership and marketshare. But I agree stay away from Hockey, it doesn't need to become a part of your 3 ring circus you call a Sports Network.

ESPN will be to sports what MTV is to music in 5 years.