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?
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.