The Critical 'I'

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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

FINALLY, THE NHL ON NBC
proud as a peacock
After months of speculation on my part, including a mention last week in wake of the creation of NBC Universal, it's now a reality: The NHL and NBC have struck a 2-year deal to broadcast games starting next year (or next season, whichever comes first).

So it's sayonara for Disney/ESPN. It's just as well, as hockey wasn't going to get much exposure there with the other big-league sports occupying space, combined with the NHL's perennially low ratings. While a move to NBC will be spun as a move the league had to settle for (especially the lack of upfront fees and Arena Football-style conditions), I'm optimistic that a shift to a new outlet will be a rejuvinating shot in the arm for the televised product.

As I've pointed out before, NBC needs this as much as the NHL does. The lack of a true major league sports on its airwaves has been tough for the network to explain away. The NHL, despite the perception it carries as a weak sister to the NFL, NBA and MLB, is still a major league, and so lends NBC that cache. This gets the network back into the game, which, considering its prospects in the post-"Friends" and "Frasier" era, it'll need. Plus, at two years, the deal is easy enough to handle.

I think we can look forward to plenty of games on the USA Network, as well as the NBC mothership. Lots of great branding opportunities there.

What would be the cherry on top of all this? I'm crossing my fingers for an accompanying revival of Peter Puck. I don't remember his first NHL on NBC go-round, as it was a bit before my time. But I'd welcome him back, maybe as a CGI-powered avatar. Or not.

CLARIFICATION: I was a bit hasty in bidding ESPN goodbye. For now, the NBC Sports deal only provides for NHL games to be shown on broadcast television; the league's cable rights are still being negotiated with ESPN, and could very well remain with Bristol.

I've kind of got my doubts, though. If NHL already has a deal with NBC for over-the-air games, they could always use that to expand an agreement for cable broadcasts; plus, they can use that option as leverage against Disney/ESPN. NBC has plenty of cable outlets now, and as I said months ago, they need fresh content for those outlets, too. So I'm hopeful of seeing rinkside action on USA Network; they'll just have to move their staple reruns of "Walker, Texas Ranger".

I also came across a little reminder of a Big Four sports league precedent in the no-upfront-fees model struck here: The ill-fated Baseball Network:
The last time such a deal was made with a major sports league was in 1994 and 1995, when Major League Baseball joined with ABC and NBC to create the Baseball Network. The players strike in 1994 wrecked the revenue-sharing model that was central to the agreement.
Naturally, an NHL lockout next year would also mess with this agreement, although that's already been accounted for.

LAST UPDATE: Looks like NBC Universal will have to find other content to fill up its cable coffers. The NHL has re-upped with ESPN for its cable telecasts, at a sharply reduced schedule and price. The specifics:
- Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals exclusively on ESPN;
- Exclusive coverage of the All-Star Game and All-Star Weekend activities;
- Continued exclusive Conference Finals telecasts;
- Additional exclusivities from each Conference Semifinal series;
- Extensive Conference Quarterfinal and Semifinal coverage;
- 40 exclusive regular-season games on ESPN2 - 23 on Wednesdays, beginning Opening Night, and 17 on Sundays;
- Coverage of the NHL Draft on ESPN2;
- Continued agreements for ESPN.com and ESPN International;
- Select telecasts on ESPN HD and ESPN Deportes;
- Rights for ESPN Classic, ESPN Video-on-Demand, ESPN Broadband, ESPN Wireless.
USA Today has a good wrap-up of the league's day full of television deals.

CNN/Money's Chris Isidore takes the results and declares the NHL to "officially" now be a minor league sport, with his argument basically boiling down to this:
The NBC deal is similar to the one the network has with the Arena Football League. That's all you really need to know if you think the sport can still claim to be a major player in the U.S. sports scene.
There's a degree of truth to this analysis, but the caveat is that the NHL is automatically assumed to be an also-ran league, and so practically any television deal would be seen as a demotion. By comparison, the new deal the NBA got a couple of years ago was given a positive spin, despite the drop in money and a virtual shunting of most games off the broadcast schedule and onto cable. I'm just happy they have a deal of any sort.