Does the NHL need ESPN?
It's a question that's been asked in every board room, sponsorship pitch meeting and press box around the NHL since the lockout. It was asked frequently during the early years of the NHL's relationship with Comcast on U.S. cable, as the embarrassing start on Outdoor Life Network begot the growing pains of VERSUS.
It's been asked much less frequently now that the NHL is locked into a 10-year television contract with NBC, which has helped to broadcast every Stanley Cup Playoff game in its entirety on national television for the first time in league history — something ESPN didn't, couldn't and wouldn't do.
As the NHL continues to build in popularity across every metric in the U.S. — attendance, sponsorship, ratings, social media outreach — the question has now changed. It's no longer "does the NHL need ESPN?" …
… it's "Why doesn't ESPN need the NHL?"
Chicago-based author and blogger Ed Sherman put the question to Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice-president and director of news. Doria's answer won't surprise any hockey fan that sees how ESPN covers the NHL on its radio and television platforms* but it's still frustrating to read:
"If you go to our radio and television shows, there's not a lot of hockey talk. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of yammer out there to give us hockey talk."
Why does ESPN hate hockey?
Doria: We don't hate hockey. When I worked in Boston (as sports editor of the Boston Globe), I probably went to more Bruins games than Celtics. There's probably not a better in-the-house sport than hockey. Watching it live. My own personal feeling is that it never transferred well to television. I'm not exactly sure why that is.
He's right, of course. The NHL and its television partners have never quite figured out how to crack the code on bringing the in-arena experience into the television in your rec room.
But what does its telegenic nature have to do with what is allegedly total coverage of sports, with at least a halfhearted attempt at journalism? Well, we move on …
Why does hockey get a limited presence on SportsCenter?
Doria: It's a sport that engenders a very passionate local following. If you're a Blackhawks fan in Chicago, you're a hardcore fan. But it doesn't translate to television, and where it really doesn't transfer much to is a national discussion, which is something that typifies what we do.
Baseball fans are interested where Albert Pujols is going. NBA fans are interested in the Miami Heat. For whatever reason, and this is my unsubstantiated research on it, hockey doesn't generate that same kind of interest nationwide. You look at national talk shows. Hockey rarely is a topic. People in Boston aren't that interested with what's going on with the Blackhawks.
Again, he makes a decent point: Hockey fans can be bitterly loyal. Local ratings drive national ratings, and not every hockey fan is still watching the playoffs after his or her team is eliminated.
Where his argument falls apart is in evoking Pujols.
Hockey fans around the country care about Sidney Crosby, love him or hate him. They care about Ovechkin's ice time in Game 2. They care about the old-timers like Selanne and Jagr and Lidstrom, and they care when there are flash-points of violence or controversial calls or suspensions.
These are national conversations, happening everywhere from social media to blogs to message boards to podcasts. They're just not happening on ESPN.
At some point, we get to a chicken and egg scenario with ESPN and the NHL. ESPN doesn't talk about the NHL because there isn't enough interest in the sport, but there isn't interest in the sport because ESPN doesn't talk about it. Which comes first? Doria's comments seem a little out of touch, if only for the fact that Boston actually was in the Top 10 markets watching when the Blackhawks beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals a couple years ago. Their Game 6 was the most watched NHL game since the 70s and national ratings this year have increased greatly with every playoff game televised nationally.
If anything, the demand for hockey coverage should be increasing nationally instead of decreasing. But what if ESPN still televised the NHL? Would things be different at all?
Said Doria: "I guess if we were rights holder, there probably would be a little more attention paid to it. It's typical that would happen."
Well, until poker gets hot again …
Look, ESPN has its reasons for not covering hockey. Here's another: It knows we don't watch ESPN for hockey.
We've been trained not to. "SportsCenter" doesn't play the highlights, the majority of hosts disregard the sport, and their producers opt not to have hockey in the conversation during programming.
From Awful Announcing again:
Where ESPN runs in to trouble with hockey fans is their eternal claim to the mantle of WorldWide Leader in Sports. If that's the case, 36 seconds of highlights after the opening night of the Stanley Cup Playoffs creates a disconnect. With this existing notion in Bristol that the NHL doesn't generate a national discussion, their coverage of the NHL doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.
As hockey fans, we adapted, found alternatives, and no longer need the high school quarterback to give us a wink from across the dance floor.
Why doesn't ESPN cover hockey?
Because we no longer need it to.
* Again, please keep the TV side separate from the online side. ESPN.com has great hockey coverage, breaks news and connects with its audience in a way the TV and radio sides do not. Ditto Grantland. Ditto the local scribes in places like New York and Chicago and Dallas.