Here we go again. Football’s over. Another 200-plus days without America’s favorite sport. Now that the Super Bowl has finally come and gone, we must find something else to occupy the sports side of our brain.
If you’re like me at this time of year, you probably don’t let the absence of football get to you too badly. You seek out something else to excite your sports pants. If you’re like me, maybe you’re even a little beaten down by NFL coverage. Seriously. How much more can we talk about Ray Lewis and “Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback?”
And if you’re like me right around this time, you’ll find yourself tuning into ESPN in the middle of the week during this awkward stage where its schedule is in flux and shaking your head. So I say this: C’mon, ESPN, you’re the “Worldwide leader in sports.” Where’s the hockey?
The network, which has nearly claimed a monopoly on the weekday sports block for the past 20 years, should check its ego at the door. ESPN, hockey needs your help. And you could use a little yourself.
After the infamous 2005 NHL lockout, ESPN and the NHL decided to go separate ways. They both claimed it was mutual, but let’s be honest. You don’t just pack your bags and move out when you’re dating the king of sports, even if you have to share it with other sports. No, no, the station thought the NHL was bad news, that it would never get its act together. They didn’t want to be on board a sinking ship, so they got out. Smart move at the time.
Now things are different. The all-sports channel may have a similar mindset as it did before. The 2012 lockout was an indicator that the league is still walking on eggshells. But both ESPN and the league are in a place where reconciling might not be such a bad idea. The network still has its problems with putting a good product on the air during the spring, even with the NBA and college basketball, which can overload our circuits with games we don’t care about. And the NHL — well, it’s all over the map. Loyal fans are flocking to games and putting up nice ratings on NBC. But the less loyal aren’t too interested. What’s more is, neither side seems to care.
Here the hockey league is also being stubborn. The NHL, which claims to award its champion with the most elusive and most coveted trophy (yes, in my opinion the Stanley Cup is still the most famous and the most difficult to attain) needs to check its ego, too. Yeah, we know that it has NBC, which does pretty well for itself. But what a way to take the easy way out. What a way to settle rather than going out and getting the best. It’s time for ESPN and the NHL to reunite.
Does anyone remember a time when ESPN actually cared about hockey? When it had full coverage not just the 30-second highlight every once in a blue moon? I do. Remember when the station didn’t just squeeze in a nice pat on the back at the end of SportsCenter the night the Stanley Cup champions were decided? I do. And I, like many hockey fans, miss it greatly.
The thing is, both parties stand to gain a lot by coming together. First off, for the NHL, we know that it can somewhat recover from a huge blow like a lockout. But can it do it twice? Maybe. But not in the way that it’d like to — being relevant when compared to the other three major sports. Face it, the league is still gasping for air. There was already a disparity between regular sports viewers and people who give a hoot about hockey. The fan base paled in comparison to the other sports before the recent standstill, even if it was regaining its following. However, if the NHL enlisted the help of ESPN, not only could it recover, it might even prosper. But commissioner Gary Bettman and the robots who run the league might be too stubborn to see that.
For ESPN, it’s too bloated to understand it either. It’s still busy showing, reshowing, analyzing and re-analyzing the Super Bowl and, for Pete’s sake, previewing next year’s Super Bowl, to realize that the NHL has a strong fan base that would certainly boost its ratings. If there isn’t a basketball game to be aired, who knows what you’ll find. Bowling? Racing? The World Series of Poker? No, ESPN, we want real sports.
For now, the NHL makes do with NBC, with whom it is locked into a 10-year contract. But how about NBC and ESPN? That makes more sense. Every other sport has multiple TV deals. Hopefully at some point in the future, the two sides will realize they need each other. The network will enjoy welcoming the cult of hockey fans who will no doubt tune in. And the NHL will certainly enjoy being something more than a punch-line in “How I Met Your Mother” jokes. To me, this is a no-brainer.
The NHL on ESPN? Make it happen!