Listen to NHLPA, Versus is Not NHL’s Problem

Everyone is quick to bash the NHL for its deal with Versus, and point to the fact that it’s not on ESPN as the biggest problem with the league. ESPN brings a lot to the table, with its almost 100 M household reach, strong programming lineup, multimedia platform, and brand name. However, the NHL putting its games on ESPN will not magically increase the league’s popularity.

ESPN currently has deals with the NFL, NBA, MLB, and Grand Slam events for golf and tennis. Do you envision them bumping any of those sports in favor of hockey? So, in its current state, the NHL will only be a step ahead of the PBA and World Poker Tour, probably buried on ESPN2. That does not help the league. In fact, that treatment feeds the stereotype that hockey is not a major sport. It will need to fight for air time with college basketball and the NBA during most of the regular season, then MLB and the NBA during the postseason, so ESPN will inevitably bury the sport. Ask MLS how its ESPN deal is working out?

Versus has slowly built a strong audience, posting ratings at about the same level as ESPN did prior to the 2005 lockout, though Versus comes with a smaller audience. Its now in 75 million homes. Again, not ESPN, but not bad. The network caters its schedule to the NHL, and showcases the league (the Game 7 conflict and lost minute of a playoff game, notwithstanding).

Hockey’s real problem is not distribution, it’s marketing. NHLPA Director Paul Kelley has called the league’s TV partners to do more to promote its players – and they should listen (http://tinyurl.com/ldmru3). A few weeks ago Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin faced off in a classic matchup of the league’s two biggest stars in a 7-game duel, with both players performing at a high level. A Kobe-Lebron matchup that may not happen has received more publicity that the series, thus exemplifying the NHL’s problem. Versus didn’t get the message out using other media – I didn’t see much in the way of online or traditional advertising anywhere from Versus. The NHL failed to develop a campaign around it. Everyone knows about the NBA’s “Where Amazing Happens?” playoff marketing, what has the NHL done?

This is where ESPN would help. They could give Crosby or Ovechkin the commercial time, the Sportscenter interviews, the appearances on the Morning Show, create shoulder programming to publicize the duo, headline them on ESPN.com, and so on. That is what hockey needs. They need more GQ, more talk shows, more coverage outside of games. People will find them games if they want to watch.

NBC is a bigger problem. They do the league a disservice. It’s the red-headed stepchild for a network that does not even hold the rights to another major US professional sport. Like most networks, they dictate game times, except they pay hardly any rights fee to the NHL. The Stanley Cup gets moved to accommodate NBC, but for what, a few dollars that the league could easily make in many other ways. A few more viewers may watch – at least according to Nielsen – since NBC reaches more homes than Versus, however its rating is lower and its not quality viewers.

The NHL needs to dump NBC. Sports no longer need broadcast television in today’s digital world, where the Internet and cable television have overtaken broadcast in mainstream society. The league needs ESPN, not because more people will watch the game, but for marketing. In conjunction, the league and Versus need to really step up the marketing programs. Just like any business, growth requires an investment.

On another note, hockey should reevaluate its revenue sources. TV is not big revenue right now – its ticket sales, merchandise, and sponsorships. The league should look at more ways to monetize the sport locally. Continue to build strong RSN ratings, create more events around the games themselves to fill up the building. When the building is filled, create another event to capture the excess demand, similar to Pittsburgh holding a viewing party showing the game on a big screen outside the stadium. The league should capitalize on local demand and make a strong bottom-up marketing push to build a sustainable fan base. Again, people will find them on television, the NHL needs to make people want to find them.

The NHL deserves credit for building a strong digital media platform. It does not need broadcast partners to give it multimedia reach. The PORTAL strategy is yielding record numbers of video streams and page views. It fits well with the NHL’s international strategy and provides the experience its deeply engaged niche fans seek. Taking this strategy to the next level, the league should employ a more definable “freemium” online business model that allows free sampling of content, with the rest of the content behind a paid wall. Many hockey fans are die hards and they are willing to pay for access, so it can capture revenues and still allow casual fans to sample content.

Overall, Versus is not the problem, but its not helping solve the problem either. The NHL needs to ditch the idea that broadcast television is necessary to succeed, get ESPN on board with Versus (they work pretty well together with Turner on the NBA), develop a strong marketing machine in unison with both networks, and continue to build out and highlight its online strategy. I should not be able to read about sports on the Internet without seeing a ploy to visit the PORTAL. In conjunction, the league should take focus locally in each market on filling the stadiums, and creating secondary events for excess demand, which has more direct impact on the league’s bottom line than a national television deal.

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One Response

  1. I agree that the NHL doesn’t need to dump Versus to work with ESPN. During the lockout, ESPN2’s programming got higher ratings than the hockey they would have shown.

    I’m a bit torn at the idea of losing a national over the air TV partner. I grew up without cable and was incensed that the Knicks and Rangers didn’t have local over the air broadcasts. Probably one of the reasons why I’m a big Yankee fan. I could actually watch their games. The NHL obviously went with NBC because that was their only option. I still remember watching the 1994 All Star Game, played at MSG on NBC. Marv Albert needs to return to hockey.

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