Last week, news broke that Versus decided to pick up their option to broadcast the NHL for at least three more seasons. When the news began to circulate, there was a collective groan from many pundits and bloggers who have been pining for the NHL to return to ESPN, where it was home from 1992-2004. Once the lockout came and went, fans had to search their TV Guide's to find what was then known as the "Outdoor Life Network". Indeed it was a funny name for a sport that's played indoors. After hockey fans were able to find out where OLN was, they had to deal with lead-ins consisting of professional bull riding, hunting, and probably some sort of bar-b-q'ing competition.
Now, as we're in the midst of the third season of games being broadcast on OLN/Versus, it's safe to say that they've done a decent job. After a few early hiccups and a terrible picture quality at the start, they've improved, mainly in part due to the NHL hiring former Hockey Night in Canada executive producer John Shannon.
Since day one, I've liked the deal with Versus. In the years right before the lockout, ESPN was cutting back on its coverage and the NHL wanted more attention put on its game. With the amount of college football and basketball, as well as the NBA beginning in 2002, hockey games were almost forgotten about on the network. By moving to Versus, the NHL would be the channel's biggest draw and that would help improve the league's visibility. Well, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Many hotels still do not carry Versus as well as some cable carriers around the country, even though more and more people each year are becoming able to watch the channel. Ratings are slowly improving, but nothing earth shattering. I do like the fact that Versus has games every Monday/Tuesday night's, with some nights showing doubleheaders. I think they are trying their best to promote the game by utilizing all of their resources, but that doesn't seem to be enough for some. I don't know if Versus is the problem or it's just the fact that not a lot of people watch hockey to begin with.
If the NHL went back to ESPN, why would anyone think ratings would immediately improve and shatter what the sport is getting on Versus?
There's a reason why ESPN did not want to renew the deal with the NHL after the 2003-04 season. From a USA Today article in 2006:
"...a Tampa Bay-Calgary Finals game on a Saturday in 2004 scored the second-lowest-rated network prime-time rating ever of 1.4% of U.S. households. It was tantalizingly close to the all-time mark: 1.3% for snowboarding on NBC in 2002."
You have the pinnacle of the season, the Stanley Cup Finals and it draws that low of a rating on ABC, a national network and partner with ESPN, who was obviously promoting the series heavily. Yes, it was between two smaller markets, but you're not going to get a New York-Los Angeles series every season. So what's the big fuss about moving to ESPN? People weren't watching then, so why would they watch now?
I'm not an anti-NHL on ESPN guy, but I only want the league to return to the WorldWide Leader in the right situation, which may not be possible in the sports age we're living in. College basketball, football and poker take up a lot of hours of ESPN programming and must draw decent ratings if the executives in Bristol keep shoving Norman Chad and lipstick cameras down our throats. It's one thing to have hockey back on ESPN just to have it there, but it's another for it to be hidden amongst all of the other sports that are broadcast throughout the ESPN umbrella.
Between ESPN and ESPN2, I'd be happy with 3-4 games a week, including a weekend game of the week on ABC, as well as coverage during the playoffs. The Stanley Cup Finals could be shown on ESPN for games 1-2 and games 3-7 on ABC. For those that still do not have or get NHL Network and cannot enjoy "On the Fly", a return for "NHL 2Night" with John Buccigross and Barry Melrose would be a must.
While all hockey fans want to see the game grow and do well on television, a simple "The game needs to be on ESPN" is not the solution to the problem. It's not about being on ESPN and automatically everything is great. In the right situation, with the right amount of marketing by both the NHL and it's television partner, things will improve, but it will be a long road until we get there.
I know I'm probably in the minority here, so I'd like to hear what others think, whether you're in the "pro-ESPN" camp or not. If the league goes back to ESPN, how do you want it to be promoted there?