I think this is one of the shrewdest moves that ESPN has ever pulled off. After the strike Hockey was almost a worthless entity. Versus has tried and failed to revive the Sport and NBC took a shot as well. Now that the short contract is up for NBC they have the decision of using games as a lead up to the Olympics or dropping the broadcast entirely due to the ratings.

ESPN is in the perfect position to pick up the NHL at a good price and ultimately could bring the league back from obscurity. Via Globe and Mail…

Losing NBC, a network broadcaster, would be a setback for the NHL. But a resumption of its relationship with ESPN, after a four-year estrangement, would be a boost.

With ESPN involved, the league would receive wider exposure on cable television and also get more air time on SportsCenter.

Without NBC, the NHL would revert to being a cable TV league, but one small benefit would be avoiding media scrutiny of embarrassingly low broadcast ratings. Cable ratings are not as closely monitored as those on network television.

An ESPN deal with the NHL would probably consist of ESPN2 airing regular-season and playoff games, with ESPN coming in for a share of the Stanley Cup final, assuming NBC decided to pull out. However, for ESPN to return to hockey, consent would be needed from Versus, which owns exclusive NHL cable rights in the United States.

Everyone seems to think that a deal with ESPN has already been done and will be announced in the next few weeks, but NBC’s deal with the NHL really doesn’t cost them anything at all and they have the final say. It’s a bunch of tough decisions for a league in flux, but I if they have the choice heading back to ESPN would be the way to go. Not for the ratings but for the exposure and the content that would be added to all of ESPN’s outlets.

NHL’s U.S. television future remains unclear (Globe and Mail)

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