For years I've been a frustrated NHL fan.  It's been my opinion that ever since the lock-out, Gary Bettman and the NHL have done an awful job marketing the game.  

As a life-long Ranger fan, I can't tell you how many times I've turned on MSG (the Rangers' home network) to try and watch the Rangers play the Devils or Islanders, only to find myself watching Sabres-Lightning or some other game I care little to nothing about.  Why?  Because the NHL has the worst television deal of any of the major sports – and it’s not debatable.  I mean, as a diehard Ranger fan I don't even get a large chunk of their games and I live in a New York market!  Today, the NHL announced they've extended the deal for ten more years…disaster.

I love NHL hockey.  It's an unbelievable product – thanks in large part, to the NHL league office (and the players of course).  After the lock-out ended the NHL went to great lengths to make the game a more offensive, fan-friendly game.  They shrunk and standardized the size of goalie pads and instituted the trapezoid behind the goal - which helps keep play in the offensive zone.  They also limited what defensive players could do, such as making almost any contact to the midsection of a puck handler a penalty.  The list goes on.  These rule changes, as well as the emergence of some great young talent, have created an NHL game that is as fast and exciting as it has ever been.


The problem?  It's hard to find!  Versus and NBC carry the NHL.  Most sports fans out there couldn't find Versus with their TV Guide.  And NBC only carries Saturday and Sunday afternoon games after the halfway point of the season (though in the new deal NBC has agreed to begin coverage after Thanksgiving).  The bottom line is the only NHL event that is properly advertised is the NHL Winter Classic.  Beyond that one game, not enough is done to market hockey.

Today the NHL is clearly fourth in popularity among the big four sports.  Realistically, it's probably behind college basketball, college football and NASCAR as well.  Does it deserve this?  Is it the fourth best product?  Not in my opinion.  Watch a great hockey game, i.e. any playoff game, and try to come away from it feeling anything but exhilarated.  So why is it lowest in popularity?  Because it isn't visible, therefore isn't growing.  Just look at the television deals of the other major sports.


NFL?  They have Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN.  There's four cable networks to catch football on.  FOUR! If the NFL gets much larger Nickelodeon is going to have to start carrying some games.  The NBA has ESPN, ABC and TNT.  There's three networks that the bulk of television watchers have.  MLB?  Fox and ESPN.  Again, networks that almost all TV watchers have and know where to find.  Also, all of the networks listed above are networks that fiercely promote their product.  Can you watch ESPN and not see a commercial for soccer?  Soccer.  It's a sport that no one in the U.S. actually cares about and they still promote it like crazy!

The bottom line is when each of these leagues is in season you can't flip through channels and not find a game, or a commercial for a game.  And that's how you grow the game - you introduce it into as many markets as you can and try and hook people.  Here's another thought, would it even matter if Versus was promoting the game well enough?  How many people who aren't hunting and cycling enthusiasts watch Versus in their spare time?

I know a lot of people will pump their chest and yell at me about how 'REAL FANS' know what channel Versus is and will watch hockey regardless.  That's great.  Who cares? As a diehard fan I know that I'd watch the Rangers if they were on 'Lifetime' or 'E!'  But the NHL shouldn't care about me.  They should care about my sister and brother-in-law.  They watch some sports but don't watch any hockey - unless they’re in the room when the Rangers score.  Then they have to watch the rest of the game so as not to incur the wrath of the jinx. But I digress. The NHL needs to start caring a little more about the casual fan, so as to grow the game to what it once was.  If they do that, more kids will take up the game, ratings and revenue will grow and chances are the product will get even better.


If you're with me so far, then you can understand why I was incensed to find out that ESPN was in negotiation with the NHL to acquire their rights before the announcement of today's deal.  What a golden opportunity this was.  Is there a more powerful promotional force in sports than ESPN?  Look what they've done with European soccer, for example.  More people are engaged in the English Premier League than ever before.  If I were Gary Bettman I would have begged ESPN to take the TV deal.  I would have offered them the league for free - for let's say two years (NBC has not paid for the rights to the NHL for the past few years).  I would have said, "take the rights to the game for free, under the conditions that you bring back 'NHL 2Night' and nationally televise at least a game a week."  Imagine how much the game could have grown in just those two years with John Buccigross and the mulletted wonder that is Barry Melrose behind the desk every night.

The NHL missed a great opportunity to grow it's game today.  They could have negotiated a deal with another network that could have vastly improved the games’ presence and viewership.  It chose, however, to stay with NBC/Versus and stay largely anonymous to casual fans.  Maybe they were thinking solely about their diehard fans, and maybe you think that that's whom the league should care about.  But is making your game more visible to casual fans really doing a disservice to diehards?  Won't they find the game no matter what?  And isn't growing the game better for everyone?  Once again the NHL front office has made a decision that has left a lot of people scratching their head - and left me bitterly disappointed.


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