Philadelphia Flyers' owner Ed Snider really does have a lot of influence as his parent company Comcast/NBC-Universal just inked a 10 year deal for the television rights to the National Hockey League last night, according to The Wall Street Journal. The deal is a slap in the face of the national sports leader, ESPN, who is owned by ABC and used to be the NHL's leading partner before letting the league hang out in the breeze in a day before Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, and Steven Stamkos.
The NHL is one year away from a labor dispute and is only four years away from a Chernobyl-like meltdown after a year-long lockout that lost many a long-term fan in the mid-2000s. The NHL also suffers from the absolute worst major sports deal in TV, which effects its overall revenues. Currently NBC doesn't even mention NHL hockey until well after the first of the year on their broadcasts. Mainstream consumers and viewers have no idea that NBC covers hockey at all compared to horseracing and PGA golf. NBC-Universal's embattled sports channel, Versus, was exiled from DirecTV's 50,000,000 viewers for most of 2009-10's season, thus making more and more loyal fans turn away from hockey on TV. The NHL Center Ice Package is the most pathetic of all of the major sports subscriptions as they cannot deliver many of the local feeds and offer upwards of 50 percent of any week's games in HDTV. Any videophile will tell you that no sport more than hockey benefits from HDTV, with the fast moving action, bright colors and high contrast ratio between the black puck and bright white ice.
NBC-Universal is betting hard that they can reinvent the Versus channel into a destination location for sports. Many in the know - think Comcast-NBC-Universal has lost their marbles. Versus as a channel is located in the 600s on DirecTV, and likely can't keep up with the power of ESPN's channels located near CNN, ESPN (mothership), ESPN News and ESPN2 in the low 200s on DirecTV. Since the NHL's self-imposed beating with their lockout - they have never recovered with their TV ratings specifically targeted to a male, affluent demographic, and as silly as it may sound, the fact that Barry Melrose's embarrassingly pathetic mullet isn't talking about hockey on ESPN doesn't help the sport in a world where NASCAR and X-Games speak to today's youth more than hockey - you can only wonder how ESPN didn't get at least a part of this deal.
For the NHL to be successful long term they have to accept their role as a niche sport to a well-heeled audience. Turning down ESPN was likely a mistake even if it makes the owners of my Flyers very happy and very wealthy. They can't live with their games being broadcast in standard definition. They can't live with their local feeds (including key markets like Philadelphia) being blacked out from the national markets. They can't live with poor commentary and play-by-play from the likes of Mike Emerik as another doomsday is looming. Donald Fehr, the man who cost us all a World Series, is now in charge of the NHLPA union, and is going to want to get his players even more paid than ever before - yet there are teams like Phoenix who need to move to more viable cities and other franchises who barely spend to the league minimum. Realistically, the league needs a four team contraction but today isn't the day to discuss that. Today is a day to discuss the effect of slamming the door in the face of the one outlet that could have brought the NHL back into the big four of sports in the year before the NFL and the NBA are involved in their own disgusting lockouts. Sadly, the NHL is only one year away from their second meltdown and just married the wrong TV partner. Go figure.