The Globe and Mail's William Houston is exploring the possibility that the NHL may soon return to that bastion of sport in the USA, the ESPN networks.
Houston reported that SportsBusinessJournal.com suggests that preliminary discussions have been taking place that could see the NHL return to ESPN 2 in time for the 2008-09 season.
Whether that means that NBC is preparing to drop its latest NHL experiment remains to be seen, the network is on board for the 2007-08 season, but hasn't committed beyond that.
For the NHL access to ESPN is very much a desired thing, since the spat that saw the two entities part company, the games exposure on the sports Goliath has been reduced significantly and the problems of coverage through the Versus method have been documented quite nicely over the last year.
Considering the troubles that basketball seem to be heading towards soon with their gambling referee and the potential black eye that could provide, a move to ESPN could help the league regain some of the territory it lost over the last few years.
NHL appears to have U.S. television options
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
August 20, 2007 at 9:28 PM EDT
When NBC announced its 2007-08 NHL schedule last week, no mention was made of its option for the season to follow.
Some might have viewed that as a sign NBC is preparing to end its relationship with the league.
SportsBusinessJournal.com reported recently the NHL has been in discussions with ESPN about placing games on ESPN2 in 2008-09, which led to speculation NBC is pulling out.
That's not how NBC sees it.
Sources close to the network say it plans to exercise its option for 2008-09. It does not view its profit-sharing partnership with the NHL as a failure. Some money (not much) has been made, apparently.
Regular-season ratings (percentage of U.S. households tuned in) have been low: 0.9 in 2005-06 and 1.0 in 2006-07. But ABC's average of 1.1 for its final season, 2003-04, wasn't much better.
What's more, NBC had the disadvantage of beginning its NHL telecasts at a time when U.S. interest in the league had hit rock bottom after the cancelled 2004-05 season.
As for the network's poor numbers for the past two Stanley Cup final series, they can be explained easily: Edmonton Oilers-Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and Anaheim Ducks-Ottawa Senators in 2007 – small-market matchups that inspired little interest in the United States.
But what if it were the NHL, and not NBC, that was considering cancellation of the 08-09 option?
What if ESPN, which balked at a $60-million (U.S.) annual rights fee in 2005, agreed to pay the NHL $30-million? Each of the 30 clubs would pick up $1-million a year, more than what is being earned in the NBC deal.
There could be other compelling reasons for the league choosing ESPN and ESPN2 over NBC.
Although the NHL would lose carriage on a main broadcasting network by opting for ESPN over NBC, it would renew its relationship with the most powerful sports channel in North America.
Exposure on ESPN's SportsCenter, which dropped 28 per cent after 2005, would increase. And the constant scrutiny of the NHL's paltry U.S. ratings would largely disappear. Cable audience figures do not receive as much attention in the U.S. media as those of broadcasters.
Everything is speculative that this point.
ESPN may have interest. NBC isn't planning an exit strategy quite yet.
Still, the NHL appears to have options. Its U.S. television situation may not be as dire as some believe.