For fans my age, the soundtrack of hockey, when we get wistful, can at times still be Steve Levy and Darren Pang calling yet another multiple overtime game. Or Bill Pidto hosting NHL 2night. It was eons ago now, but when ESPN launched ESPN2 “The Deuce,” one of its main tenets was that it was to show more hockey. At times, I can still see the set. It also contained commercials of Crash Bandicoot yelling, “Less work more hockey!” But now it’s getting away from me.
So it’s that part within hockey fans rejoicing yesterday at the news that ESPN will pick up half of the NHL’s national TV deal starting next year. The NHL wouldn’t have had a lot of choice. NBC is shutting down NBCSN, and it’s unlikely Comcast is interested in putting games on USA or other channels it owns on multiple nights. Some have wondered if USA moving WWE NXT off of Wednesdays, as has been rumored, is to clear room for NHL games. Fox doesn’t seem likely, though CBS has been gobbling up soccer rights and probably wouldn’t mind beefing up its midweek sports lineup for Paramount+. But CBS doesn’t offer a cable outlet like ESPN or Fox Sports or NBCSN, as CBS Sports doesn’t have the carriage or cache. Anything is possible, though.
What other channel was going to pick up the package? Turner probably has shelled out the budget on the NBA and MLB, and beyond that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else.
That doesn’t mean it’s all bad news. ESPN is still the standard-bearer and beacon of what matters in sports, whether we like it or not. The NHL being on ESPN means it will get time on PTI and Around the Horn and whatever other show is filled with the floating heads of gaping maws chattering on endlessly. That matters, as sad as that sounds. ESPN will make sure the NHL is in the headlines more simply to serve its own purposes, but the indirect result is more exposure.
Where ESPN will put games exactly is still to be found out. Most of them will end up on ESPN+, and it wouldn’t be a shock if the NHL doesn’t get too much better treatment than ESPN gives the Bundesliga or Serie A, with almost the complete package on their streaming service.
We know that the NBA has Wednesday and Friday nights on the World Wide Leader. Would Tuesday nights be hockey’s? Thursday, dealing with the NFL for the first half of the season and TNT’s NBA coverage for all of it? Remains to be seen.
All hockey fans should really hope for is that ESPN takes its coverage seriously. Which means not forcing Barry Melrose upon us because he has a mullet and a loud suit and hasn’t actually watched a game since 2006. We know that John Buccigross is going to fist his way onto the coverage somehow, because he just will, but hopefully it’s not All Bucci All The Time with nicknames galore that will force you to put your head through the drywall.
Say what you want about NBC, and it’s taken them too long to pivot away from the Mike Milbury type of analysis—and Pierre McGuire is still far too prevalent—but recently it has tried to upgrade its analysis both through using recently retired players who know the modern game and female analysts as well. The fear is that ESPN will just toss Buccigross, Melrose, and whatever Don Cherry-like bullhorn they can find and then leave them in their own little closet in Bristol that the rest of the staff looks at through a tiny window in the door. That won’t do the league much good.
Being Comcast’s/NBC’s only major sport during the week at night was a bigger boon to the NHL than perhaps it realized. That means it got promos during Sunday Night Football and a focused department, which it won’t get at ESPN. Will the league like having conference final games given less attention than Sunday Night Baseball? NBC made every playoff game, the NHL’s showcase, available. ESPN will likely as well through ESPN+, but is that the same? Maybe that’s just the way things are going.
The big question for the league is how much more money it will mean. The NHL has been staring down a flat salary cap after their pandemic losses, and the hope was that splitting the TV deal would boost revenues to change that and correct whatever damage coronavirus and having no crowds for a year has done. With NBC almost certainly not showing much interest in taking the whole deal and a lack of other suitable partners, it wouldn’t be a huge shock if ESPN got something of a deal on this.