In the early days of HDTV when Discovery Channel had one of the first HD channels on the dial - there just wasn't that much content to watch. ESPN will have the same problem as early adopter consumers will want to show off their new toys to anyone willing to strap on some active glasses. Respectfully, college football is a good start, but for 3D to be truly successful they are going to need a consistent sporting draw night in and night out. That draw is likely sitting there waiting for a phone call - it's the NHL. ESPN used to have a pretty good relationship with professional hockey - that is until the sport imploded over a labor dispute that resulted in a lost season and a lockout in 2004-05. Coming out of the lockout, ESPN couldn't see the value in the sport as its ratings had dropped and it lacked superstars, thus forcing the NHL into a TV deal with NBC and Comcast's Versus network. Today NBC doesn't really broadcast NHL games unless it's the playoffs and on weekends and Comcast had Versus pulled from DirecTV for nearly the entire year. To say that the NHL's television deal is a stinker is being a bit too polite. Ask any hockey fan about how few games are shown in HD on the NHL Center Ice plan or how the Versus-DirecTV ego battle effected their fandom and they will beg you for an ESPN deal.
Hockey is a more attractive sport for ESPN today as they do have star power in the league that didn't exist five years ago. Names like Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Pronger make for good story lines. The Flyers-Blackhawks Stanley Cup got good ratings that beat out the NBA Finals in Philly and Chicago. Additionally, US Olympic hockey nearly won a Gold in Vancouver but more importantly - hockey viewers always have represented a small but more affluent viewer than the traditional sports fan. They have the money and interest to follow the sport in 3D if there were enough games to watch. ESPN didn't need hockey with the emergence of newly popular sports like X-Games and NASCAR but now they have new needs thanks to 3D. ESPN could use the volumes of content that hockey can bring to the table, especially with ESPN3 online content, ESPN2 running fishing shows and ESPN 3D starving for unique, meaningful content.
NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, would not hang up on ESPN if they came calling just as the NBC-Comcast deal is coming to an end. Bettman needs to improve the exposure and image of the sport in the United States badly, which includes more than a passing reference on the 6:00 PM SportsCenter. They could potentially keep Versus as a partner, but ESPN has proven with Monday Night Football that they can draw in a network-like audience and if the NHL became enough of a draw, what would preclude them from putting, say, the Stanley Cup on ABC? The NHL's last contract was somewhat of a commission deal and if Bettman bet correctly - he could get both more upfront money for the players (nice little chip going into a CBA) as well as the potential for more money if the sport produced in the ratings. More established sports are not going to be as willing to do a "deal on the come" as the NHL will, especially if they can get a conduit to more viewers like ESPN offers.
Both ESPN and the NHL have mutual needs for a meaningful partnership going forward that could help lay the groundwork for 3D content that could be sticky for a niche audience (as compared to other sports like football and baseball) but could also be a building block for ESPN to bring other partners into the fold.