Ok, i'll go ahead an weigh in with my thoughts about ESPN talking to the NHL.
First, the basics:
- I would love the NHL to be anywhere but on Versus. Even if they went exclusively to their own NHL network (which is being discussed, but it wouldn't be exclusive), it would be better than Versus.
- NBC wants to get out of their contract. The NHL hasn't done well for them (mostly because there is no secondary support and only airing a few games for a few weeks out of the year isn't enough to build an audience). But the NHL needs a free, over-the-air presence.
- ESPN also carries with it ABC. See point #2.
Now, my thoughts are this. ESPN would be great. No question. But what would be better? Fox.
For everyone that remembers the old glowing pucks and has a general hatred for the idea of hockey on Fox - hear me out.
Is ESPN the "worldwide leader in sports"? Yes. But here's the rub. They also have the TV contract for the NHL's major competitor, the NBA. The NBA and NHL both have 82-game seasons that run through the winter. They have games on the weekend and during the week. ESPN and ABC will be forced to choose between the two leagues for prime coverage spots. If given the opportunity to air an NHL game or an NBA game, ESPN is going to choose the NBA game every time.
Meanwhile, Fox Sports is the only other major factor in sports broadcasting these days. This makes more sense for a few reasons. First, most of the NHL teams around the US have contracts with regional Fox Sports affiliate for cable broadcast (the Predators are on Fox Sports South for instance). Fox does also have experience in covering the league (1994-1999).
More importantly, Fox's other sports contracts are with MLB, NFL, and NASCAR. Baseball is off-season while the NHL is playing, and the football is just 1 day a week for Fox (Sun afternoons) and NASCAR is at a minimum over winter. This means the NHL will get more prime coverage and more choice spots.
Of course the main down-side to that is that Fox Sports does have great broadcast presence, they lack a major national cable channel to replace Versus. The ESPN/ABC combo is a powerhouse. It would be great to get. I just worry about scheduling issues...
We'll see how it pans out.