One of the fronts where ESPN has taken the most criticism lately is their handling of hockey, and that's understandable. The network hasn't exactly given the NHL a lot of coverage in recent years, which some would say is thanks to a serious belief inside Bristol that hockey "doesn't transfer to a national discussion." Others would argue it's because they don't have NHL broadcast rights (and competitor NBC does). Regardless of which side of that debate you fall on, it's become a prominent topic of discussion in the sports media world, and ESPN president John Skipper made some fascinating comments to Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch on the subject this week. Here's what he had to say (page two, item #4):
Skipper said the perception that ESPN has given hockey the short end of the stick is not accurate. "Look, I don't think it's fair," Skipper said. "I see SportsCenter every day and we cover hockey every day. We do not have a significant differential between highlights of hockey now and when we had it. The only difference is we are not there [as a rights holder]. If we were there for the playoffs, we'd be throwing to the guys calling the game. We can't do that, but we are at hockey games. We are doing hockey highlights."
What's notable is that the Worldwide Leader isn't doing a lot of hockey highlights, though, particularly compared to sports where they also happen to own the broadcast rights. Consider Deadspin's excellent Bristolmetrics series, which tracked the content of SportsCenter's 11 a.m. segments on a minute-by-minute basis throughout 2012. Their final 2012 segment concluded in the cumulative statistics that those SportsCenters spent just 459 minutes on the NHL from Jan. 7, 2012 to Dec. 20, 2012. That's 2.8 percent of overall airtime. The next-lowest sport tracked individually, college basketball, was at 1,168.25 minutes (7.1 percent of total airtime). Of course, it didn't help that the NHL was locked out this fall, but ESPN's coverage of the lockout was so hard to find that even company man Bill Simmons was griping about it.
SportsCenter largely ignored the NHL this past year, though, regardless of whether the league was currently locked out. The league was in full swing last January, but got just nine minutes of coverage in a week of SportsCenter (less than even "Other Sports"), and things didn't improve by the playoffs. In June, the height of Stanley Cup playoff action, the NBA's Miami Heat received 120 minutes of coverage in a week of SportsCenter, while every non-NBA sport shared 130. How much of that did the NHL get, even with a thrilling playoff run by a major-market team like the Los Angeles King? 23.5 minutes, 6.1 percent, below the NBA, MLB and SportsCenter staples like Encore and Top 10. Maybe that would be fair if hockey actually didn't "transfer to a national discussion," but the improving ratings it's drawing on NBC don't suggest that's the case. At the moment, it's hard to think that the attention ESPN pays to hockey accurately reflects the sport's place on the U.S. landscape.
However, perhaps Skipper's comments are correct and it isn't all about broadcasting rights. Puck The Media's Steve Lepore made a very valid point Wednesday; the network's NHL coverage on SportsCenter began to drop off when they picked up NBA games in 2002, before they lost NHL rights to NBC. Thus, perhaps this is more a question of ESPN priorities than ESPN properties. With ESPN pushing more and more coverage towards fewer and fewer stories throughout the day (think Jets and Lakers), there's little room left for dedicated coverage elsewhere. Whatever's behind it, though, it's easy to make a strong case that the minimal attention the network pays to hockey doesn't reflect the sport's place on the U.S. landscape.
In the end, perhaps ESPN as a company isn't sure where hockey's place on the landscape is at the moment with one executive stating "hockey doesn't transfer to a national discussion" and ESPN's president claiming "we cover hockey every day." That's quite the disparity coming from the highest levels of the network. Regardless of if their rationale involves broadcasting rights or "national discussions," Bristol has underserved hockey fans for quite some time.