March 12, 2021
The announcement this week that the NHL
is returning to ESPN, with broadcasts on several platforms under the terms of a seven-year contract, wasn't a shock.
It also recognizes the evolving marketplace, with cord-cutting,
streaming and more individual choice about what to get and not get. To to assess it under conventional terms that are now
out of date would be misguided. I get all that.
And I get that as long as broadcasts of NHL games are easily obtained from an ESPN/ABC platform -- regardless
of which one -- that's the most important detail.
So I'll concede that what comes next can be accused of being the product of archaic thinking. And from what
I have seen and read from NHL fans in the past few days, it involves concerns many share.
With ESPN/ABC enamored of the NBA, MLB,
and college football and basketball, where is the NHL going to fit?
Will it be a complete afterthought banished to secondary channels/networks? EPSN8 (Ocho)? ESPNUNews3?
Even on SportsCenter, will highlights continue to be wedged in among the sports the
network is more passionate about?
I'm willing to concede that hockey fans -- as savvy as any sports fans about the new broadcast realities and technology that
still is evolving -- will be adaptive. And to a point, it literally is irrelevant whether ESPN and ABC are treating the NHL
as a showcase product or as just another commodity among a huge selection. The important thing is whether those who want a
first-class broadcast can get it. (Right, Denver?)
The healthy thing is we're moving toward the ideal of true a la carte consumer
options. I do wonder how far ahead of the pack this deal will be, given that change has been exponential in the past few years
and the landscape likely will be quite different as this seven-year deal comes to an end.
NBC/NBSSports mostly did a good job with the NHL, utilizing
its connection to parent Comcast to air home team broadcasts from its regional networks, too. Now we'll see if ESPN
can resummon and rebuild its former symbiotic relationship with the NHL, from a time when ESPN wasn't a huge-money player
in the competition for broadcast rights and the NHL had less competition from other leagues on its network partners.
Again, broadcast realities and technologies are changing --
they'll change between the time you start reading and finish reading this paragraph -- and to expect ESPN to flash back to
old formulas and the halcyon days of the previous networks-league deals would be unrealistic. But trying to bring back Gary
Thorne and Bill Clement, plus bringing on Ed Olcyk, would be a good start.
I'll close with a personal remembrance that emphasizes how much things have changed.
In early 1980, as a (very) young Denver Post beat writer, I was on the road with the carnival that was Don Cherry-coached Colorado Rockies in the first season
following the NHL's admittance of four WHA teams -- the Nordiques, Jets, Whalers and Oilers. Our sports columnist, Steve Cameron,
was on the trip, too.
Before a game at Hartford, the Whalers PR person apporached us and asked if during the first intermission,
one of us could be on the Whalers' radio broadcast and one of us could be on a "local' television broadcast. I don't
remember if he said the name of the TV operation or not. Steve, mostly jokingly, asked if the guests got gifts. (That was
common at the time, so the question wasn't outlandish.) The PR guy said the radio guest usually got a nice transistor radio
and the television shot came with a "thank you very much and good luck."
Steve, who was my close friend and even mentor at the time, patted me on the shoulder
and declared he'd do the radio interview.
At the intermission, I walked down to the arena level and loading dock area, stepped into a production trailer and
had a nice on-air conversation with affable sportscaster George Grande.
ESPN had been on the air since the previous September.