Helene Elliott in today's LA Times writes about the NHL's disastrous move away from ESPN to OLN (now Versus). It's hard not to think of the PGA Tour and The Golf Channel when reading this:
A year ago, with its season about to start and ESPN refusing to pay big bucks to renew its rights deal, a desperate NHL aligned itself with OLN, now known as Versus when it's mentioned at all. Either side can end that agreement after this season.
If the NHL is serious about becoming a major player, it must flee Versus, crawl over broken glass if need be, and beg ESPN to take it back.
Like it or not, ESPN is ingrained in our sports culture. NHL executives were furious that under the previous deal, ESPN cut its NHL coverage after it added the NBA. However, a profit-sharing deal with the NHL would give ESPN incentive to restore hockey to prominence.
"ESPN provides the sort of Good Housekeeping stamp of approval," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon and a hockey fan. The NHL, he said, "would be better off finding a working partnership between themselves and ESPN. If it were my decision, and not knowing the reason, this league needs as many symbolic attachments to maintain their position as a major professional sport."
Versus' appeal had three prongs: It was willing to give the NHL lots of airtime, it was willing to pay a rights fee, and it was there. It hasn't grown fast enough to give the NHL the exposure it needs, having only recently extended its reach to 70 million homes, 20 million fewer than ESPN and ESPN2. Nor has Versus created a distinct identity that separates it from its competitors in the cable universe.
"If we were going to grow, we needed to do something different," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in defending the deal. "While we gave up some distribution, the coverage was phenomenal. They will continue to grow over time and we think as a result, people will see better coverage of hockey."
Bettman said Versus has committed extensive resources and money to its growth...
Hey, but look on the bright side NHL. You aren't locked up for 15 years.