It appears ESPN isn’t out of the hockey business after all. On Tuesday night,
TSN’s Rick Westhead reported that ESPN has secured the broadcast rights for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, beating out rival sports networks Fox and NBC. ESPN has not yet confirmed Westhead’s report. However, if ESPN does broadcast the rebirth of the World Cup, it could mean big business – and big exposure – for the NHL.
“If they do end up getting it, I think it’s a really interesting move by (ESPN),” said Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, who writes a sports media column for the publication. “The potential for the World Cup of Hockey to be a major international tournament is pretty high. Depending on what ESPN paid for it, I think it’s a really interesting gamble.” And that it is. Not since the 2003-04 season has ESPN broadcasted hockey and the network has long left a sour taste in American hockey fans’ mouths. The game's supporters have derided the network for the of hockey coverage. In 2012, Deadspin ran a yearlong series titled “
Bristolmetrics” that, among other things, ran down the coverage of various sports during SportsCenter. The NHL accounted for just 2.7 percent of SportsCenter's total airtime. That same year,
Ed Sherman of Sherman Report spoke with Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice-president and director of news. Doria said that he personally felt the game didn’t translate well to television and added that there wasn’t, “a lot of yammer out there to give us hockey talk.” Doria continued, saying that hockey doesn’t generate the same national discussion that sports like football, baseball, and basketball do, with the NHL generating a more fervent local following than it did a national reach. But what if ESPN owned a piece of hockey property? “Listen, I guess if we were rights holder, there probably would be a little more attention paid to it,”
Doria told Sherman. “It’s typical that would happen. We might throw it to commentators who were inside the building. Now we’re not inside the building.” While fans of the sport won’t agree with Doria’s sentiments and the network’s reasons for not covering the league, Deitsch says acquiring the World Cup rights could show that ESPN still cares about the game. “It’s pretty good public relations for ESPN to say, ‘We haven’t abandoned hockey, we’re interested in the sport, and here’s an example: we’re bringing the World Cup of Hockey to you,’ ” said Deitsch. “Much of the PR will have to do with how they market the tournament, and how much airtime they give prior to the tournament to educate the U.S. audience on what (the World Cup) is about,” he added. “If it’s just a one-off where we don’t hear anything about it and they just play the tournament, that’s still cool that we’ll be able to see it, but that’s giving the property a different treatment than NBC does with the NHL.” It’s interesting to note that NBC/Versus signed a 10-year, $2 billion with the NHL in 2011 and, at the time, commissioner Gary Bettman said NBC had, “provided incredible coverage of our sport and have teamed with us to deliver the best TV viewership figures in three decades.” Even with the NHL getting some of its best U.S. ratings in history and the creation of special events like the Winter Classic and Stadium Series games, ESPN was able to pry the rights for the World Cup away. Deitsch said the Worldwide Leader probably had interest in the NHL broadcast rights near the end of the league’s deal with NBC in 2010, but they likely passed because they weren’t willing to pay the price. The NFL, MLB, NBA and college football are the four major sports on ESPN and they draw a much greater audience than the NHL, which means hockey likely didn’t seem worth the investment of time or money. As such, ESPN’s interest in hockey, and the World Cup, has a lot to do with finding good value – the rights to broadcast the tournament in which several of the world’s greatest hockey powers will compete likely came at the right price. And for the league, they could probably afford to lose a bit of money on the TV rights because being on ESPN will also increase the tournament’s exposure. “The fact that the tournament would appear on ESPN – and let’s say ESPN and not ESPN2, because that makes a big difference, as well – then yes, it would draw a bigger audience, for sure,” said Deitsch. “How much bigger? Probably in the hundreds of thousands. Not millions.” If the
NHL decides to put ads on jerseys as has been reported, that could help drive up the price. More exposure usually means more money. Just ask those companies that paid
exorbitant sums for Super Bowl spots. ESPN has yet to confirm that the World Cup of Hockey is headed to the Worldwide Leader, but once a formal announcement is made, American hockey fans can rejoice because if ESPN does broadcast the tournament, they're likely going to give it the best treatment they can because they'll want the return on their investment, too. The World Cup will be coming to the US, thanks to a network many believed couldn’t care less about the sport.