What to Make of the NHL Network

Earlier this decade starting 24-hour cable networks became the cool thing to do for major sports leagues – NBA TV, NFL Network, more recently MLB Network, and of course the NHL Network. The first three have sustained notable successes and failures, nonetheless most people are aware of the three networks and what their position in the market is. The NHL, on the other hand, is an afterthought.

Few people know about the network, let alone watch it. That begs the question if your brand wants to use television as a marketing tool and revenue-generating utility, how do you plan to succeed with relatively little penetration. Last check the NHL Network is only in about 12mm households (though the number may increase with the Comcast deal), and despite league management saying the goal is wider distribution, I have not heard much of a fight from their camp to achieve this.

Conversely, they don’t have much leverage with cable operators. MLB, NFL, and the NBA each have major national television deals and broadcast and cable that earn substantial ratings, plus MLB and NBA ratings on regional networks often exceed NHL ratings in similar markets. Clearly, the other three sports have much more demand in the US. MLB boasts more content than any sport because of its long season, the NFL has made ancillary events such as the draft and combine into annual media frenzies, and the NBA’s work with Turner have given its network a boost. The NHL has none of that going for them.

The league tried to leverage cable operators by tying its Center Ice out-of-market package to network distribution, but again the package does not have the demand or popularity to force the hand of cable operators. Given the low subscriber penetration rate, and the difficult battle it faces to move the needle on that, plus the minimal subscriber fees it earns from the cable providers, I’d argue the NHL is failing to achieve both goals – marketing to a broader audience and revenue generation. That said, the league should reconsider its network strategy, rather than pursue a losing proposition.

If the league wants to stay in the content business, they should focus on developing shows and licensing them out to regional networks and international providers, rather than striving to program a 24-hour network. This could help reduce costs, while maintaining a revenue stream, and bolster distribution by leveraging with more availability – i.e. RSN’s, other niche sports networks.

Further, NHL’s online presence is well-designed and provides a great fan experience. It can try to shift the network completely online, have free and premium components, still license content out to television networks and web portals, use iTunes and other mobile distribution platforms, and shift the cable provider strategy to more VOD, which they have pursued with Comcast.

As the red-headed step child of major US sports, the NHL needs to stay ahead on the innovation curve and be willing to take more risk. Following the same network model that other leagues use is a doomed strategy for the NHL at this point. The league needs to develop something unique that extracts value from the current fan base (without gouging them), and achieves the reach and relevance needed to expand its fan base.

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