NHL Network needs to catch up with its league-owned brothers

Since launching in 2007 in the United States, the NHL Network has lagged behind in distribution and viewership as compared to its three other league-owned channels. NFL Network originally had difficulty gaining distribution, but now is carried by all of the major cable and satellite providers. MLB Network had the biggest launch for a new channel getting agreements by bundling with its MLB Extra Inings out of market pay per view package. And NBA TV has been able to get a tie-in through Turner Sports and the NBA League Pass package.

For NHL Network, it's been a constant struggle. When it launched in the US, the NHL signed long-term contracts with cable and satellite providers allowing them to place NHLN on sports tiers which hurt growth. According to Sports Business Journal, negotiations with Time Warner Cable are expected to bring NHLN to digital basic putting on an equal footing with its three league-owned brothers. However, that is just one of several major hurdles for the network. 

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In addition, Sports Business Journal says league partner NBC Sports Network has picked up more live games and shoulder programming than anticipated. And when NBCSN airs live games, NHL Network goes into taped programming which again hurts ratings points.

Since a relaunch in 2010, the channel has improved its production values and increased original programming (NHL Live, NHL Tonight). The network has also hired additional on-air talent and all of this has helped to raise the channel's profile among hardcore fans, but it still has yet to translate into increased viewership.

Also during the lockout, unlike NFL Network and NBA TV which covered their league disputes, NHL Network remained silent and stayed in taped programming until a week before the truncated 2013 season began. 

For NHL Network, there's a lot of room for improvement. While it has come out of the dark ages and its studios no longer look as if they're originating from broom closets, the taped programming needs updating. Airing more live games will help and it would behoove the network to carry the entire CBC Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader instead of just one game.

Now that the league is in its offseason, live programming is taking the summer off. This hurts the network compared to its brothers as MLB, NFL and NBA all manage to fill their schedules with live studio programming and original documentaries, features that have been sorely lacking on NHL Network. If the league wants to keep its fans updated, NHL Tonight should be on 52 weeks a year instead of 44.

Plus league officials need to get the channel off the dreaded cable and satellite sports tiers otherwise viewership will remain low. The NHL sees better days ahead with a full season and long-term labor peace it expects to see more eyeballs for its outdoor games in January and March, but again, those contests will be carried on its other broadcast partners. 

So NHL Network remains last among its league-owned brethren. It has a long road ahead to catch up. And right now, the other three channels are hundreds of miles ahead. 

[Sports Business Journal]

Ken Fang

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

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