NHL Return to ESPN a Possibility

The NHL’s TV contract with Versus and NBC expires after the 2010-2011 season, that is known. What is not known, however, is where the NHL will wind up after the contract expires. According to Sports Business Daily, ESPN is interested in bringing the NHL back to their networks, including ABC.

ESPN Exec VP/Content John Skipper indicated that "he’d like hockey to return to ESPN and ABC." However, Versus President Jamie Davis said that the net "aims to hold on to the asset."

It looks like that for the first time since the lockout, the NHL could be a desirable asset that could launch a bidding war between Versus/Comcast and ABC/ESPN (ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney). The NHL has continued to grow in ratings, which were up over 25% during the last four weeks of the season on Versus (This of course came after Versus and DirecTV settled). On NBC, ratings are up over 10% from last year.

While it seems like a no-brainer to switch to ESPN/ABC, especially when offered the same rate, the NBC/Comcast deal could offer a whole new outlook on the deal. Comcast (owner of Versus) purchased NBC from General Electric for a whopping $13.75 billion. The NHL could be the biggest benefactor of this purchase. With Comcast/NBC owning the rights to the NHL, a Versus/NBC deal could be as potent as an ESPN/ABC deal, but more lucrative. It is quite possible that Comcast could choose to air more NHL games on NBC to help boost ratings for other Versus games. This co-advertising campaign could be very similar to the campaign seen with ABC/ESPN.

So what does all this mean? Well, NBC Universal, which includes NBC and USA (in addition to Versus as a part of this mega deal), could potentially air the NHL on three separate channels. This would be extremely beneficial to the NHL, as marketing hockey on three separate channels reaches a far greater number of viewers. More viewers of course means better ratings, which leads to more money coming to the NHL, which leads to larger revenues, which eventually leads to a larger salary cap ceiling, and larger player salaries. The only thing that Comcast/NBC cannot compete against with ABC/ESPN is Sportscenter. The only problem is that Sportscenter is a very large obstacle to overcome if you are Comcast/NBC.

In the end, the NHL needs increased viewership to have the chain reaction described above (ratings -> revenue -> salary cap -> salaries). This is a very big crossroads for the NHL, who will likely begin negotiations with both networks soon. The most important item for these negotiations, aside from money, has to be NHL air time. It appears that is something that Comcast is willing to increase. If ESPN wants to compete, they will need to match the offer in air time, both on ESPN, ABC, and on Sportscenter. There are pros and cons of both options, and the well being of the league as a major sport depends on both the decision, and how the winning network handles the NHL.