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1 29th February 13:55
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Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

By Greg Wyshynski

Taking "Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN" to the
beach was, perhaps, the best argument I've experienced for replacing
bound-books with digital devices. It comes in at 748 bloated pages,
making Stephen King's "The Stand" seem like a flier for a local home-
cleaning service by comparison. It was heavier than my cooler.

Of the 748 pages, there are roughly eight pages dedicated to ESPN's
relationship with the NHL that spanned from 1985 to 2004, save for
three years on SportsChannel America. Nothing about the actual games,
their presentation, anything illuminating the behind-the-scenes
personalities during that nearly two-decade run just eight pages
about the divorce.

Eight really good pages, it should be said. Some of the more
entertaining parts of this meandering tome a disappointment, given
the narrative clarity of the authors' "Saturday Night Live" book
were about the executive-level battles over rights with rivals, like
the Monday Night/Sunday Night Football tangle between ABC, NBC and
ESPN. (You could have pulled out all the "MNF" drama, like the Tony
Kornheiser experiment, and created a hell of a book on its own.)

Authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales present an interesting
juxtaposition between a jilted Gary Bettman taking his League to
Comcast after the lockout, and ESPNers like SportsCenter host Steve
Levy criticizing that move.

From the book, here's Levy:

"The people at VERSUS offered essentially more than twice what we
did, and the NHL, and I believe this is shortsighted, took the money.
And the League has made this mistake before over the years with that
SportsChannel America. They got to make a few extra bucks, but nobody
could see the games. It's not as bad, but it's somewhat similar. I'm
constantly being told by players and the players' association and the
NHL that the guys are frustrated. Can't get the games. Don't know what
channel it's on. Can't get it in the hotel when they're on the road.
They can't watch their own sport. And in essence that's driven a lot
of people probably to ESPN because they can at least get the
highlights and ****ysis. I think we've actually stepped up our hockey
coverage since we haven't had the sport."

We'll let that one digest for a moment. Levy continued:

"I don't believe we did anything wrong as a company, as a network.
I thought we made a fair offer. Nobody promotes the game the way we
do. I wouldn't swear by the financial figures, but I think it meant,
by going to VERSUS, an extra one million dollars per team. So it was a
$30 million difference, or something like that.

"And I think that's shortsighted for the lack of promotion and the
lack of visibility for the sport."

Since the book was published, the NHL entered into that 10-year, $2-
billion contract with NBC Universal, keeping hockey on the Pea**** and
the newly rechristened NBC Sports Network (soon to be formerly known
as VERSUS) until right around when Rick DiPietro's(notes) contract is

So within that new context, is Levy still correct? Was it shortsighted
to leave ESPN? And does ESPN cover hockey better now than it did when
the NHL was still in the family?

Miller and Shales frame the NHL's post-lockout split within the
frustrating reality of what their partnership with ESPN had become:
Hockey being pushed to the margins in favor of ESPN Original
Programming and flavors of the month like Texas Hold'em.

From the book, Gary Bettman:

"We'd been partners for all those years; they built ESPN2 into
this behemoth on our back for virtually no cost for our programming.
We had just dome through one of the most difficult and extraordinary
times that a sports league had ever been through, and their answer,
instead of embracing us and trying to make it right, was 'We're going
to take another pound of flesh.' Unlike when **** Ebersol came to the
board meeting during the work stoppage and said, 'We know you guys
have business to take care of. Do what you have to do and we'll be
there when you get done.'"

The authors report that Mark Shapiro, then president of ESPN, told
Bettman that ESPN had just $30 million to offer the NHL, and made it a
take-it-or-leave deal no negotiation. Bettman said no, and that led
to the league hooking up with Comcast's Outdoor Life Network and into
that "public access" deal with NBC.

Steve Levy of ESPN, again:

"Every time I see any of the execs, I think everybody would like
to have hockey back. We always joke, 'Hey, we'll take the NBC deal
where we don't have to pay a rights fee and if there is a profit,
we'll be happy to split it with you.' But I don't believe we were
offered that."

ESPN wasn't, but that's because Bettman and the NHL felt ESPN owed
them something more than a leap of faith. Instead, a television
partner on and off since the mid-1980s decided to play the bully.

Bettman, from the book:

"Once they have you, there's no incentive to grow you because it
costs them more money. Mark [Shapiro] played tough with us because he
could. I think they were trying to send a message, but they overplayed
their hand because they drove me to the point of creating a new

That last point is an essential one in the NHL/ESPN debate: Growth.
Say what you will about the quality of VERSUS's coverage, but they
dedicated airtime to the NHL that wouldn't have been provided on the
crowded schedule on ESPN and ESPN2 especially during the Stanley Cup
Playoffs. It was in their best interests to grow the centerpiece of
their network.

Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?For NBC, it was in their best
interests to have some type of counterprogramming for the college bowl
games that ABC and ESPN have on Jan. 1. Enter the Winter Classic,
which could go down as one of the most successful things the NHL has
ever created (or co-created, as it were).

Meanwhile, the NHL was regaining its footing as a League thanks to
renewed star power (Sidney Crosby(notes), Alex Ovechkin(notes)), a
more exciting brand of hockey due to rules changes and significant
franchises reversing their fortunes (like the Chicago Blackhawks and
Boston Bruins).

All of this led to NBC Universal paying out the ass to retain hockey,
but that was partially of their own creation: The partnership helped
grow the game in the U.S.

So the critical question here, to go back to Levy's point: Could ESPN
have grown it even bigger?

Bruce Dowbiggin of the Globe & Mail believes the jury's still out on
that, but doesn't seem to buy the ESPN Effect:

"Attributing the 2011 NBC payoff to the Versus move in 2005 is a
stretch. Who knew they'd merge with NBC back in the dark post-lockout
days? Could ESPN have brought the NHL more public recognition earlier?
Unlikely so long as they buried the NHL on their second network. It
was exterior forces that changed the landscape. Till it got with the
new rules, Winter Classics and HBOs, the U.S. public simply wasn't
buying what Bettman was selling.

"So the NHL got more money from OLN/Versus, the visibility issue
with ESPN2 was a wash, and now there is the hope that NBC's diverse
universe of TV channels and web platforms can deliver more than ESPN.
Conclusion: It took a while, but Bettman's stand against Shapiro
finally has paid off in modest fashion. Which is about the best hockey
can hope for in the shadow the NFL, NCAA, NBA and MLB."

Say this about ESPN: Their coverage of hockey on digital platforms has
improved greatly, with Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and other scribes
pumping out content. The fact that Bill Simmons has located his inner
puckhead is a great thing for the sport, too; not only because it
means hockey on the B.S. Report but also former Deadspin writer Katie
Baker writing hockey on Grantland.

The coverage of the NHL is impressive on, but the sport's
still buried on the network's chat shows, SportsCenter programs and
overall content on television. It's on the margins, with no compelling
reason for the on-air talent to give a toss about it (because many
don't to begin with). How much hockey do you hear (or see) on "Mike
and Mike"? Or "Around The Horn"? Take a guy like Colin Cowherd, who is
a centerpiece of ESPN Radio and now inescapable on ESPN's TV networks
-- you think this guy is giving the NHL quality coverage?

There's always going to be a lingering question about whether today's
NHL could have been a darling on today's ESPN, given all the positive
momentum for the sport in the U.S. currently.

But as far as the old "the NHL needs ESPN" harangue we heard so often
during OLN/VERSUS years well, do you still buy it?
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2 29th February 13:55
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Posts: 1
Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

I still buy it. The NHL, Cycling, and Indycar have all shot themselves in
the foot by jumping to the network formerly known as Versus. It remains to
be seen if any of them will every recover from intentionally moving out of
the spotlight.
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3 29th February 13:55
keith keller
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Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

["Followup-To:" header set to]

I agree that moving to Versus was not the wisest course of action, but
had the NHL stayed with ESPN they would have been banished to the
darkest corners of their broadcast schedule. So I'm not sure I agree
that it was a mistake to leave ESPN, just a mistake to go with Versus.
(Then again, who else is out there?)


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4 29th February 13:55
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Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

Only because Direct TV doesn't have VS on their channels. otherwise
making an affiliation with NBC was a smart move. Now did they know that
at the time they jumped? I don't know, I think [part of the lure for NBC
was that VS had the rights to the NHL. So right now, I think it is
better. VS was willing to make the NHL the premier sport for their
channel vs ESPN which would keep them at no.4 (or 5 if you count NASCAR)

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5 2nd March 18:33
tom jerry
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Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

TMC schrieb:

Please don't tell me that I won't be able to watch NHL games on TV on
ESPN America over here in Europe.

Tom, fan of the Chicago Blackhawks (favourite Eastern Conference Team:
Boston Bruins)
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6 2nd March 18:33
ray ohara
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Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

No the NHL didn't..

Vs is getting another new name NBC sports 2.
NBC is going whole hog into sports with Comcast
and Vs will get better access to cable networks
the NHL and Indy are the ones who've lucked out.
Versus {orig outdoor life} made itself attractive enough to get bought by a
major player
and the cash will flow in now.

I like Vs's productions, they do a very good job on their broadcasts,
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7 2nd March 18:33
keith keller
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Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

["Followup-To:" header set to]

Okay, first off, it is incredibly rude to both the newsgroups and the
author to repost his blog entry in its entirety without comment. If
you're just posting it for interest, post the link and that's it.

You're full of crap, Levy. Your so-called ''coverage'' is about two
minutes every few hours on ESPNews. And your coverage still ****s,
because Barry Melrose is still employed by ESPN.

Again, Levy's full of crap. With all the other leagues ESPN broadcasts,
NHL games would have been on ESPN Classic at 1am. It is sort of true
that nobody promotes the NHL the way ESPN does, but that's a specious
argument, because nobody promotes it, period. NBC is atrocious, and (as
Levy, in a rare not-full-of-crap moment, notes) Versus is available in about twelve homes.

Told you, Stevie. Full. Of. Crap.

Ah, now Bettman's full of crap. ESPN2 was in the position that Versus
is in now till ESPN starting showing more NCAA football and basketball,
and more MLB. The NHL had little to do with ESPN2's success.

I imagine the "take it or leave it" deal was just a way for ESPN to get
rid of a flailing product.

Bill Simmons is a great writer, but he knows even less about the NHL
than Barry Melrose. Burnside and LeBrun do put out some columns and
news, but it's a pittance compared to the coverage gives the other sports.

I disagree with Puck Daddy here--it's mediocre at best.

I never did buy it. As the article notes, the NHL lucked out with
Versus getting acquired by NBC, but even without that stroke, the NHL
would have been miserable with ESPN. For the league at that moment,
better to be a big fish in a fish bowl than a miniscule fish in giant
shark-infested waters.


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8 2nd March 18:33
mason barge
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Default Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

Hahaha. I'd like to see what they'd say about the pay cut they would have
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