Last week, Sports Business Journal leaked news that negotiations on the NHL's upcoming TV contract wasn't just a minor skirmish between Versus/NBC and ESPN/ABC. In fact, Fox and Time Warner had thrown their hats into the ring, and the result is what looks to be an actual bidding war for NHL TV rights.
With that, let's take a closer look at the suitors and what they bring to the table:
ESPN, ESPN2 -- 99 million homes
Network affiliation: ABC
Pros: As the go-to channel for every sports bar in America, the ESPN brand is still the strongest when it comes to sports. ESPN has the ability to promote the hell out of their properties, and they've openly stated that they won't air advertising for a league on a "competing" network, which is why none of the NHL's TV spots for the Winter Classic or "History Will Be Made" were broadcast on the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader. All of this becomes open to the NHL if they jump back on to ESPN. ESPN also currently carries NCAA hockey and the Frozen Four, and those would surely benefit from the NHL's presence.
Cons: Is ESPN only courting the NHL because of a potential NFL/NBA lockout? In the last round of negotiation, Gary Bettman opted for the "big fish in a small pond" treatment by Versus rather than getting shoved aside into miscellaneous programming by ESPN. The league has far more bargaining power now, but how long will ESPN keep the spotlight on hockey?
Cross-promotion: Between SportsCenter, ESPN.com, and ESPN's mega-presence for the casual sports fan, there are fewer places that have bigger marketing muscle than the ESPN media family.
Hockey History: The long-time cable rights holder until the OLN/Versus contract, ESPN's hockey history is checkered. The production has always been solid, and the hockey folks at ESPN (Barry Melrose, Steve Levy, John Buccigross, Gary Thorne) are more than enthusiastic about the game; it's the upper management that needs to be on the same page.
96 million homes
Network affiliation: Fox
Pros: Best known for creating dynamic cutting-edge dramas like The Shield, FX is angling to expand into a combination of original programming and sports similar to rival TNT. There are plenty of eyeballs tuning into FX, and the resources and production crew from the parent Fox Sports units (both network and regional) should be available for a seamless transition and effective production.
Cons: People who watch Sons Of Anarchy or Nip/Tuck may not care about sports, so there's a question of whether or not the marketing efforts on FX would go to the wrong demographic. Also, the NHL is just finishing another contract where they're the flagship product on a relatively new sports venture -- is this a position they want to take again?
Cross-promotion: Fox Sports Net's regional channels could be blasted with NHL promos for all types of sports, from NCAA basketball to MLB games. Assuming the main Fox network gets the network contract too, there will be plenty of heavy-duty cross-promotion going on.
Hockey history: The main Fox network carried the NHL for a good portion of the 1990s and tried their darndest to promote the game to the mainstream audience thanks to the infamous FoxTrax puck and animated comic-booky robots fighting after each goal. Maybe they were ahead of their time, as FoxTrax is now used in other Fox Sports properties (such as showing pitch movement in baseball) while the NHL's Guardian Project is pretty darn close to those wacky post-goal robots.
Oh, and during that time period, FX carried the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
TNT -- 99.6 million homes, TBS -- 98.9 million homes, TruTV -- 92 million homes
Network affiliation: The CW; owned by Time Warner
Pros: Sports Business Journal reported that Turner Sports is involved with NHL negotiations, and while there's no certainty of where the NHL would wind up in its family of networks, word is that Turner is looking for sports programming to go side-by-side with Cops re-runs on TruTV. TNT currently has the NBA while TBS shows MLB games; with TruTV showing the NHL, Turner Sports would have its hand in three of the four major sports leagues, along with NCAA basketball.
Cons: Did I mention Cops re-runs? While Turner Sports has a pretty big footprint, the actual TruTV venture would feel eerily similar to the OLN/Versus idea. The difference here is that TruTV is currently available in 92 million homes, meaning the former CourtTV is in more homes than Versus currently is.
Cross-promotion: I'm guessing there won't be any real cross-promotion with The CW, but with such a variety of sports leagues captured across various networks, the cross-promotion could be there to promote in many different ways, from primary programming (drama for TNT, comedy for TBS) to the NBA/MLB games aired on the channels.
Hockey history: None, but I have plenty of fond memories watching WCW Monday Nitro in college. And the Mortal Kombat TV show was awesome in its awfulness.
76 million homes
Network affiliation: NBC
Pros: Since OLN rebranded itself as Versus, the fledgling network has forced its way into the sports TV landscape through hockey, college sports, MMA, and the Tour de France. Mind you, it's not the VIP parking spot reserved for the boys from Bristol, but at least people (mostly) know that Versus exists. The recent NBC takeover probably means yet another rebranding into some sort of NBC-themed network name -- but with that name comes the long reach of the NBC marketing machine.
Cons: Even if NBC manages to successfully accelerate Versus' growth, it'll still take a few years to get there. Does the NHL want to wait and see if NBC's cable aspirations can bite into ESPN's marketshare?
Cross-promotion: The Comcast SportsNet regional channels have already started to mention the NBC ownership during broadcasts, and it won't be surprising if those also get rebranded into a unifying NBC Sports brand. Between all of those channels and the main NBC network, there should be plenty of opportunity to plug the NHL image. We've already seen some of this between Versus and NBC with Hockey Day In America/Heritage Classic coverage.
Hockey history: As the NHL's carrier since 2005, Versus has gradually improved on the production and quality of their broadcasts.
Keep in mind there are more factors in play here than just number of homes or final dollar amount. The affiliated broadcast network is a big deal, and one that certainly gives an advantage to ESPN, Versus, and FX over Time Warner's Turner Sports. The upcoming Olympic broadcast rights will also factor in, as well as the very real possibility of having multiple cable coverage (such as the NBA's split between TNT and ESPN).