How The Last Lockout Affected TV Coverage

The following was sent to me from a retailer explaining how television was afftected by the last NHL lockout.

The 2004-2005 NHL lockout marked a key turning point in the league’s history. One could argue that fan fervor and devotion improved following the work stoppage and subsequent collective bargaining agreement. And who could blame us? We went an entire year without any action, which was a reminder of just how much we loved the game.

Although the matchups and rivalries are as intense as ever, there was an arguable downside that resulted from the last lockout. ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports,” not only gave up the rights to NHL games, but it has seemingly begun to ignore hockey in its regular sports coverage altogether. Even though services like Direct TV still provide ample hockey coverage, does the absence of a presence on the #1 cable sports network affect the league? And, given current lockout concerns, will another labor dispute change the sport in a similar way?

The 2004-05 lockout and ESPN’s relinquishing of TV rights

Following the 2004-05 lockout, the TV network OLN (now known as Versus) offered $65 million, $70 million and $72.5 million for cable TV rights to the 2005, 2006 and 2007 NHL seasons, respectively. ESPN had an opportunity to match the offer, but passed on it, effectively ending a 21-year relationship with the NHL.

The prolonged work stoppage was a key component in ESPN’s decision not to match to OLN’s offer. The cable sports network maintained that the lockout and the accompanying perception of the NHL’s instability devalued the league and made it a less feasible candidate for a significant TV contract. OLN’s offer was also surprisingly lucrative, and ESPN expressed that such a well-paid contract was unjustified given the league’s previous ratings history.

Why no ESPN coverage matters

It’s been more than 7 years since the lockout ended, and ESPN is thriving more than ever – but it doesn’t broadcast a single NHL game at any point in the year. What’s even worse is that, because the network no longer has a financial stake in the league, it has significantly reduced its coverage of the game. Why is this significant?

  • ESPN helps shape the opinions of millions of sports fans. When they exclude hockey from their coverage, they prevent potential audiences from catching on to the sport and becoming a follower of the league.
  • ESPN devalues the NHL – and future prospects for financial viability – by not covering its games. Will future TV contract bids be lower if the parties involved know that it’s a virtual impossibility that ESPN won’t be involved in the bidding process?
  • ESPN helps drive revenue for a plethora of sports. What kind of revenue are the NHL and its franchises missing out on?


Lasting impact

Today, NBC broadcasts games through its broadcast station, and the cable NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus/OLN). And it offers additional options like NHL Network and NHL® CENTER ICE® for national audiences who want to watch out-of-market games. But how has the lack of hockey coverage on America’s flagship sports network affected the long-term viability of the league? Can we die-hard fans overcome ESPN’s giant footprint with relentless, unbridled support?

With the possibility of another lockout looming, you have to wonder how another labor dispute would affect future TV deals and league coverage.


6 thoughts on “How The Last Lockout Affected TV Coverage”

  1. Our instinct is to want to see the game grow, I understand. But ask yourself this: how does the average Canadian or original six club fan benefit from wall-to-wall ESPN coverage and a vibrant hockey market in places like, say, Phoenix?

    Watching those ’87 Canada Cup reruns on TSN the past few nights, I feel, more than ever, that I want the league to take a financial hit, would love to see about 7 or 8 clubs fold and attendance struggle in a few unexpected markets.

    The quality of the game is undoubtedly better than it’s ever been, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the game being more fun to watch (though it is certainly better than that 1995-2004 pre-lockout span).

    Dennis, you’ve watched a lot of hockey in your life. If you think there’s something falsely nostalgic or shortsighted about what I’m saying, please watch a game at the Bell Centre next chance you get and get back to me.

    Everyone taking a hit in the pocketbook–players and owners alike–would probably be to the benefit of the fans and the game of hockey.

  2. “It’s been more than 7 years since the lockout ended, and ESPN is thriving more than ever – but it doesn’t broadcast a single NHL game at any point in the year.”

    That could easily be changed to:

    “It’s been more than 7 years since the lockout ended, and the NHL is thriving more than ever – and it doesn’t have ESPN broadcasting a single NHL game at any point in the year.”

    The NHL got more money to go with versus. ESPN did make an offer to stick with the NHL (they did not leave because of the lockout), but it wasn’t as much. And looking back, it was a smart move. NBC showed every playoff game this past spring. They have the Winter Classic, which wouldn’t be able to exist on ESPN.

    More I to can be found here:,wp10160

  3. This year is supposed to be the big anniversary year for Hockey Night In Canada and it’s also the last year they have rights to show games. It is quite possible that maybe we’ve seen our last HNIC game depending on how things go.

    This lockout is so utterly pointless. The rich aren’t rich enough?

  4. Darth, have a look at Sean Gordon’s recent piece in the Globe & Mail, where he spins a different take on the issue at the heart of the matter. I’d still argue that it’s centrally about money, but there certainly is ideology at play as Gordon suggests.

  5. Adam, I could be wrong but I think this lockout will have more affect than the other two combined, as far as fans go. Three strikes and you’re out. I’ve talked to so mnay people who say that’s it for them if this happens. I agree with you that hockey’s not more fun to watch than before. I think something’s missing. Maybe it’s because players, unless they’re locked up in long-term contracts, come and go and usually aren’t around for the long haul. Maybe it’s what we spend to see these games. Maybe it’s knowing that their all pammpered and spoiled and the much of the soul has been taken out. Heck, their autographs are scribbles and many are so arrogant and have forgotten they come from blue-collar families. The ’87 Canada Cup was so sensational. We had drama, a true rivalry with Russia, and there was passion and hockey fever. We can’t expect that sort of thing every night, but we can expect more than what we usually get now. My wife and I went to a Dodgers game last night and fans were so into it, having so much fun, and it truly was just so much fun. And only $65 for field level seats.I’ve come out of hockey games wishing I’d never gone, and then had to work overtime for the next month to pay for what I’d spent for a boring three hours. Great comments, Adam, and thanks.

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