ESPN’s strained relationship with the NHL is worse than ever

Before the 2005-2006 season, the NHL took a gamble.  The league left behind the safety and security living in the ESPN metropolis, their 24/7/365 promotion machine, and their hundreds of platforms for NBC and the out-in-the-sticks Versus Network.  The NHL became the only one of the four major sports to not have any television relationship with ESPN as they became the top sport of NBC and the fledgling Versus.  

Initially, the move from ESPN to NBC/Versus was met with question marks.  In fact, the league wasn’t even paid an upfront rights fee and instead split revenue with the networks.  However, the NHL had at NBC what they never could get at ESPN – the focus of a network as its flagship programming.  But make no mistake – this was a roll of the dice for Gary Bettman and the NHL.

Six years later, the NHL-NBC marriage has largely been a success story.  The Winter Classic stands as one of the best innovations in sports as the NHL has carved out its own space on New Year’s Day against college bowl games.  Ratings in recent years for the Stanley Cup Finals have been terrific for the league.  Game 6 of Flyers/Blackhawks in 2010 drew a 5.8 overnight rating, the highest for the NHL in over 30 years.  Game 7 of Bruins/Canucks last year was just behind at a 5.7 overnight.  Television ratings for NBC’s regular season coverage are up as well – recent Hockey Day In America regional telecasts matched an eight year high for regular season games (excluding the Winter Classic).  The league also has the security of its 10 year, 2 billion dollar renewal with NBC through the 2021 season and expanded coverage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and regular season.

But while the NHL enjoys its relationship with NBC, hockey fans are left to bemoan the treatment of their sport by the league’s former television partner, ESPN.  It’s no secret that Bristol is, well, ruthless when it comes to their business practices.  And it’s also no secret that ESPN helps their own.  When the NHL left ESPN, the league might as well have become a niche sport like poker or equestrian.  It’s a business decision, if not an ethical one.  In short, once the NHL was off the “family of networks,”  the business interests of the NHL didn’t match the business interests of ESPN.  The NHL simply doesn’t rate as highly as other major sports, and ESPN gains very little from trying to get fans interested in the NHL, so it serves them no good from the bottom line perspective to offer in-depth NHL coverage.

This is no surprise to NHL fans.  ESPN currently employs one, count it, one NHL analyst – Barry Melrose.  (It was two until Matthew Barnaby had to go and ruin his own career with a series of run-ins with the law.)  But those are far from the only disappointing statistics in relation to the tumbleweeds blowing across the ghost town that is the NHL’s presence at ESPN…

There is no better example of this than Deadspin’s weekly study of time devoted on each night of the 11 PM ET SportsCenter.  From January 7 – February 23, ESPN spent a total of 65 minutes on covering the NHL, or 2.8% of airtime.  The New York Knicks received more airtime in a single week (69 minutes) than the NHL has in a month and a half.  The NHL has received 10 minutes of coverage in a week only once since the study began.

Look at it this way, in an average episode of SportsCenter, the NHL receives less than two minutes of nightly coverage.  One of the four major professional sports in North America receives less time on the number one sports show in America than the SportsCenter Top 10.  ESPN isn’t your newspaper’s sports section, and it hasn’t been for a long time.  ESPN will take a few stories, drive them to the brink of insanity in saturation, and do it all again the next week.  Tim Tebow makes the needle move on SportsCenter, not Tim Thomas.  There’s no clever hashtag to describe the scoring of Steven Stamkos like there is with Jeremy Lin.  The Blackhawks and Red Wings don’t have the sizzle of Red Sox and Yankees and aren’t continual fodder for debate topics on First Take or Around the Horn or PTI.

But this week may have presented a new low in the strained relationship between ESPN and hockey fans.  The complete and utter silence from Bristol about one of the biggest days in the NHL regular season, the NHL Trade Deadline, was deafening.  ESPN didn’t even pay the NHL the courtesy of a passing mention – they ignored it completely on SportsCenter.  Like it didn’t even happen!  Here’s my colleague at Awful Announcing, Ben Koo, on the network’s decision:

That’s clearly where ESPN either shrewdly or maliciously depending on how you look at it justifies giving the cold shoulder to the NHL whenever they can. They’re afraid trade deadline hyperbole could hook some random fans who are just locked into all things ESPN and is out to lunch on their sports regional channel and NBC Sports Network programming.

Sure you can get your NHL highlights (usually buried towards the end), but in terms of really sinking your teeth into the sport and talking shop, ESPN is never going to do that unless they have to.

Essentially, they’re going to do the bare minimum needed to cover the sport. With the NHL locked into a long term deal and the departure of Matthew Barnaby with no replacement named or in the works, ESPN is content to keep letting that minimum threshold of acceptable coverage languish.

Instead of the deadline, the network focused on hyped debates involving the NFL Combine and the comparison between Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.  Women’s college basketball highlights and a story on Kobe Bryant’s broken nose took precedence over the NHL Trade Deadline.  Granted, there wasn’t a blockbuster deal done, but wouldn’t you think that ESPN could at least trot out Barry Melrose for a minute or two to acknowledge what did and didn’t happen?  Wouldn’t you think ESPN could at least address the biggest player involved in the deadline, Rick Nash, staying in Columbus?  Instead, ESPN went on with their agenda, their stories, and their machine.

On top of that reality came word that ESPN was also kicking their coverage of the Frozen Four from ESPN2 to ESPNU and the NCAA Championship Game from ESPN to ESPN2.  Not only is ESPN freezing out professional hockey, but college hockey as well.  The back to back body blows only further cement Bristol’s status as a non-destination for hockey fans.  It’s no secret to hockey fans, but it’s a cold reality of their present landscape.  Hockey fans have to go outside ESPN for their coverage, whether it be to NBC Sports Network, online, or elsewhere.  

The lack of highlights is one thing.  The way ESPN treats the NHL like a junior varsity sport is another.  But, for ESPN to completely ignore the NHL Trade Deadline and hockey in general is disconcerting for the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports.  It’s not that hockey fans are asking ESPN to treat their sport like football.  That would be improbable, impractical, and unrealistic.  It’s that hockey should be getting more coverage and respect from ESPN if it’s the true worldwide leader in sports.  The NHL needs to be treated like a major professional sport in Bristol and on SportsCenter even if it ranks #4 on the totem pole.  At some point, ESPN has to sacrifice their bottom line and business for their integrity as the top sports network in the world.  The lack of NHL coverage on SportsCenter is just too disproportionate to excuse.  ESPN can’t claim to be the worldwide leader with a straight face and pretend sports ESPN doesn’t have a $$$$ relationship with don’t exist.  

The decaying relationship between ESPN and the NHL hurts both.  The NHL doesn’t get the benefit of promotion and eyeballs from ESPN.  ESPN loses respect from hockey fans and the voices that desire ESPN to have a higher standard and not just feed their own interests.  In the end, the NHL’s strained relationship with Bristol speaks to the ongoing evolution of ESPN as a business and entertainment company first and foremost, which leaves the NHL out in the cold.

Matt Yoder is the Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and Lead Editor at