A NHL/ESPN contract signing in 1998. 25 Aug 1998: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (C) with Roger Iger of ABC and Steve Bornstein of ESPN (R) during the ESPN/NHL contract signing in New York, New York. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello /Allsport

The story of ESPN and NHL rights is a long-running one, with the network holding the league’s cable rights from 1980-88 and 1992-2004 and regular discussions of ESPN returning to the NHL game ever since. But, in the last decade-plus without rights to linear NHL games, there have been notable peaks and valleys in ESPN’s coverage of the league and in their executives’ public comments about it. At the moment, it’s much more peak than valley, with ESPN executive vice president (programming and scheduling) Burke Magnus’ remarks to Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead the latest example suggesting that the network is quite interested in hockey in general and in possibly picking up NHL rights again (when NBC’s contract expires after the 2021-22 season) in particular.

Here are his key comments on that front:

[H]ockey is something that a lot of people on this campus — it’s one of the most frequently asked questions in our staff meeting town halls: When are we going to get back into hockey? I should probably just wear a shirt that says ‘this is when the contract ends, so don’t ask me again’.

We did do the World Cup of Hockey and now with ESPN+ where the NHL is an equity partner in BAMTech and having Stanley Cup coverage and all the playoff games re-airing on-demand there, it’s great to have.

This is the one time of year, for those scheduling wonks like myself, where if you really pay attention you figure out that the oddity of the NBA playoff schedule is that in the early rounds our games are limited to Friday through Sunday and Turner has all the week. That is still a vestige of us leaving the mid-week available to do the NHL playoffs. Now, it goes back two deals in the NBA so it’s not looking ahead it’s a vestige from the past, but this is a long way of saying we could schedule the NHL playoffs pretty easily even with our NBA commitment right now.

And it is just a great sport. I personally love it. I think the NHL playoffs and Stanley Cup is one of the great competitive sport properties on television. It just seems like the number of series that go seven games, the number of games that go to overtime, the fact that it’s the one sport where home/road seems to matter less than any other, it’s just really compelling.

These remarks from Magnus are particularly notable as evidence of how ESPN’s public stance on hockey has evolved, and on how there also seems to be an internal push to get back into hockey. There’s a lot of NHL-ESPN history to consider from the last decade, and that history’s notable for illustrating how things have changed at the network recently. In 2008, following struggling NHL ratings on OLN and Versus and debacles such as NBC’s 2007 decision to bump an overtime playoff game for a Belmont pre-race show, it seemed likely the league would wind up at ESPN, but that didn’t happen; short deals with NBC and Versus ran through the 2010-11 season, and NBC (which by then was in the same family as Comcast-owned Versus, which eventually became NBCSN, thanks to Comcast’s acquisition of NBC early in 2011) outbid ESPN, Fox and Turner in April 2011 with a $2 billion, 10-year deal for NHL broadcast and cable rights.

And pretty soon after that, there were a whole lot of questions about the limited ways ESPN covered the NHL. That included ignoring the 2012 trade deadline, spending just 2.7 percent of their 11 p.m. SportsCenter time on the NHL in 2012 (behind not only the three other “major sports,” but also recurring SportsCenter features, college football, college basketball, and golf), getting massively outdone on hockey by Fox Sports Live (RIP) in 2013, running a 2014 ESPN.com reader poll asking if the league was still one of the four major sports, getting roasted by the Columbus Blue Jackets and other teams in 2014, and showing zero NHL game recaps on a 2015 night with no other major sport.

Many attributed that to the often-problematic ties between ESPN’s business relationships and its coverage (which were particularly coming into question at that point), but in 2012, then-ESPN senior vice president and director of news Vince Doria tried to defend their lack of NHL coverage with one of the most regrettable public statements ever made by an ESPN executive, arguing that hockey didn’t “translate to a national discussion“:

We don’t hate hockey. When I worked in Boston (as sports editor of the Boston Globe), I probably went to more Bruins games than Celtics. There’s probably not a better in-the-house sport than hockey. Watching it live. My own personal feeling is that it never transferred well to television. I’m not exactly sure why that is.

It’s a sport that engenders a very passionate local following. If you’re a Blackhawks fan in Chicago, you’re a hardcore fan. But it doesn’t translate to television, and where it really doesn’t transfer much to is a national discussion, which is something that typifies what we do.

Baseball fans are interested where Albert Pujols is going. NBA fans are interested in the Miami Heat. For whatever reason, and this is my unsubstantiated research on it, hockey doesn’t generate that same kind of interest nationwide. You look at national talk shows. Hockey rarely is a topic. People in Boston aren’t that interested with what’s going on with the Blackhawks.

Things have changed a lot since then, though. Doria retired in 2015, and ESPN has been steadily upping their hockey coverage in recent years, often showing highlights on SportsCenter, highlighting their Frozen Four coverage (they’ve covered that event for 25 straight years, but seem to have been promoting it more in recent years), picking up rights to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in 2015, and including NHL games, a documentary series, and more in ESPN+ (helped by ESPN parent Disney’s 2017 purchase of a majority stake in BAMTech, and MLBAM’s 2015 deal with the NHL). They’ve gone from ignoring the trade deadline even on SportsCenter to simulcasting some as-it-happens TSN coverage, which is a significant step.

Even when hockey coverage was hit hard in the April 2017 layoffs, ESPN brought in a couple of new NHL reporters afterwards, specifically Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski. And there’s been plenty of talk about ESPN making a play for at least some linear NHL rights when the NBC deal expires, from anchors like John Buccigross to our own outside analysis. But the comments from Magnus are particularly notable, as he (or someone else in his role; Glasspiegel’s piece also includes Magnus declining to comment on his own contract status) would be one of the key figures in any NHL rights deal. And it’s also interesting what he said about the NBA playoff schedule ESPN has had recently; many have figured NBA playoff obligations would be a major roadblock for ESPN in picking up NHL rights, but maybe that isn’t actually as big of a problem as it seems.

Is this all going to lead to the NHL actually returning to linear ESPN? Not necessarily. It’s important to keep in mind how crucial a property the league is for NBC, and how enthusiastic their executives have been about it. The NHL is the backbone of NBCSN in particular, and Sunday regular-season games and playoff games do pretty decently for broadcast NBC. Having NBCSN in the same corporate empire makes the NHL a logical NBC property; they can put significant tonnage on cable (even extending to USA, CNBC, and yes, even GOLF during the playoffs) and show big-ticket games on NBC proper, and they can really be identified with the sport, something that’s a priority in what they pick and choose to air.

And NBC probably isn’t the only other suitor, either. Turner and Fox both made NHL bids the last time around, and both might have interest again (especially with Turner’s streaming service and Fox’s sports-heavy “new Fox” approach), and other players could get involved too. So a NHL return to linear ESPN is far from a guarantee. And there could be some advantages for the league in sticking with a network where they’re the biggest non-NFL fish instead of heading to one where they’re one of many sports competing for airtime.

But it’s certainly significant how ESPN executives have changed their tune on the league, and how their coverage of it (despite no rights) has also changed. We don’t know what will happen in the next round of NHL rights negotiations, or even how the landscape will look then, but these comments from Magnus appear to illustrate that many inside ESPN have strong interest in the league. And whether or not that leads to linear rights, it’s a long way from the “doesn’t translate to a national discussion” days.

[The Big Lead]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.