Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Last week, ESPN and the NHL announced a blockbuster deal that would bring nationally televised hockey games back onto the ESPN family of networks for the better part of this decade. While some rejoiced at the idea of the NHL growing in popularity due to the TV deal, some hockey fans were a bit more skeptical. To break down our thoughts on the deal, I sat down with House Enterprise's resident hockey nut and, unfortunately, Rangers fan, Chris Hanold.
Chris' Opening Statement: For the longest time, ESPN has treated the NHL like the red-headed stepchild of North American sports. Their personalities like Max Kellerman constantly rag on the sport, saying things like “every city has 20,000 hockey fans, and they all have season tickets.” The whole channel itself is negligent towards the sport. You’ll get a goal highlight every once in a while at 2:00 AM and that’s about it. It is good that ESPN is going to draw more fans, but at the same time, I think it’s going to be a headache watching ESPN personalities talk about the sport when they spent the last decade bashing it.
Sam's Opening Statement: While I do think that the first couple of years of the NHL being on ESPN will be a little rough, I think this can only be a good thing in terms of growing the sport and bringing in new viewers. While it is a legitimate concern that some of ESPN's top on-air talent is currently underequipped when it comes to knowledge of the game, we're talking about the Worldwide Leader in Sports, here. Come on. Once they get their coverage going, they'll be able to assemble an Avengers level roster of analysts and commentators to cover these games.
Chris: Right now, the NHL has been hidden by NBC for so long. I’ve been able to get a few friends into the sport that weren't interested in it before, and they ended up saying it’s one of the better sports to watch. It’s the fact that it has been hidden by NBC for so long. I think only games one and games five-to-seven of the Stanley Cup Final are broadcast on NBC. The rest are aired on NBCSN, so if you don’t have that cable package, you’re not getting a good chunk of games during the Final.
Sam: You bring up an interesting phenomenon with how NBC treats the Stanley Cup. I would agree that their coverage in terms of their on-air talent is top-notch, I do think that it’s weird that the Championship series of what’s considered to be in the “Major Four” leagues is tucked away on a premium cable network. Not only that but a premium cable network that will be gone by the end of 2021, as NBC moves more resources over to Peacock. So even though ESPN might not have the best names in hockey covering the game all the time, you’re putting the NHL on the best possible platform for it to gain viewership.
Casual sports fans will usually check ESPN first when they don’t know what channel a game is on. These games will be on ABC as well, a major network, so I really can’t see anything wrong with this deal unless you’re a hardcore fan. Not to put down any diehard fans - their viewership is important - but if you’re really worried about the way ESPN covers the sport, what’s stopping you from getting that in-depth coverage from somewhere else?
Chris: While ESPN has kicked the NHL down the curb for a while, I can concede that this deal will grow the game. To address your question, people who love hockey are going to find their sources. The thing right now, however, is that no one I’ve ever met is really a casual hockey fan. No one really just turns it on from time to time, if you are a fan, you watch and follow the game closely, or you hardly ever watch at all. Nothing is going to stop these fans from getting their coverage, so the upside to the NHL being on ESPN is that it is definitely going to bring in new viewers, especially young kids.
Sam: You bring up guys like Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith, some of ESPN’s top opinion personalities, and they’re already talking about getting more into the sport. However, right now, it’s clear that some of their knowledge is a little bare-bones. However, it’d be wrong to say that ESPN is devoid of top hockey talent. With this new deal, we’ll probably see the return to prominence of guys like Barry Melrose, John Buccigross, etc. Do you feel like the sport will be in good hands once those guys come back into the spotlight?
Chris: Definitely. Hockey is at its peak right now in terms of popularity, but those numbers would probably be a lot lower if it weren’t for those years on ESPN in the late nineties and early two-thousands. The guys who do the games are great, and there are rumors that Gary Thorne might be coming back to cover the NHL on ESPN. The guys who cover it on the network are fan favorites. It’s those current panel guys that most general sports fans listen to daily, the guys who just give broad hot takes, that already get egg on their face, even when it comes to sports that they actually know.
We’ve seen it with other sports on ESPN before. A few years ago, Joe Rogan and Stephen A. were going at it because Joe Rogan criticized Stephen A. for his coverage of the McGregor-Cerrone fight. Rogan called out Stephen A. for acting like he knew more than he did about the fight, and UFC fans were upset with how the sport was received due to inexperienced commentators.
I think hockey fans would agree that they don’t want that happening to our sport. There is a running joke within the hockey community that ESPN is known as “basketball channel.” Aside from when the NFL is in season, an overwhelming majority of their airtime is devoted to basketball.
Sam: Even as someone who watches ESPN a lot, specifically for their basketball coverage, I can concede that that’s where they focus a lot of their resources. While I do find their year-round coverage of the NFL more frustrating, I can see where the title of the “basketball channel” comes from. Due to that, do you think your biggest worry is that we’ll see too much-unqualified coverage of the NHL?
Chris: It depends on who they pick to cover it. I would love to see the sport continue to blow up, but I think my biggest concern is who will get their hands on the highlight reels. Who will be the first guy to get that show like First Take that just talks about hockey? ESPN is only getting 75 regular-season games a year, so maybe there won’t be a dedicated hockey show, but if that ever happens, I think it’s important to figure out who gets their hands on it.
Chris' Closing Statement: I think the deal is good for the sport. I think it’s in better hands-on ESPN as a national network. I think a lot of young kids in the US are glued to ESPN on TV and social media, so it’ll help in that market. 10-15 years down the line, it will have grown a lot. I just don’t like how people are stuck with the idea that if ESPN doesn’t cover a sport, then it irrelevant and it doesn't matter.
It’ll be nice to see the NHL back in the limelight because there’s so much prime talent in the league right now, it's ripe for fan growth now more than ever. There has never been more top-level talent in the league than there is right now, and we're talking about the second oldest league in the USA, a league that’s been around longer than the NFL and the NBA. It sits a little sour with me right now, but give me six months into the deal, and maybe I’ll be more okay with it.
Sam's Closing Statement: Hockey on ESPN strikes a decent balance between appeasing new and longtime fans, but it is not without its drawbacks. There's definitely going to be a rough period, as NHL on ESPN looks to get its footing, but once it's off the ground, we might see the best hockey coverage on TV in years. For longtime fans who are skeptical, I'd just say hold on. The best is yet to come.