Fan skepticism on new 10-year, $200 million NHL television contract with NBC Sports Group is baffling. Let's all give this thing a chance, shall we?
I try very hard to not be cynical, which is one of the most difficult things a relatively healthy, middle-class caucasian male can do. I mean, let's face it, if you have the ability to read this frivolous essay on televised hockey, you probably don't have too many things going wrong in your life right now.
The first couple of years I wrote about hockey, I tried really hard to adopt that snarky style. I dropped it eventually for two reasons.
First: the fact is, I'm not very good at it. I have an inability to balance the snark with the plain ol' mean. Secondly: that's old hack. It's out. Time to try something new. Look at television? Cynical shows like The Office, Family Guy and Scrubs are no longer that popular. Instead, optimism reigns in the medium: shows like Community, Glee, Modern Family and Parks & Recreation have created a spontaneous wave of optimism, where humor comes from character, and not from characters insulting each other.
What I'm getting around to saying is that I want hockey fans to join me in this. All the better if we can be funny, but let's try and look at things with more of a "how do we improve?" attitude than a "how much worse is this going to get?" veneer.
I know it can be difficult with the Colin Campbell's and Trevor Gillies' and Raffi Torres' and shootouts and 12:30 p.m. game times of the day. We must try, however, to be as happy as we are when we're enjoying this magical, artistic game of skates and sticks as we are discussing it's off-ice issues.
The one thing that I think NHL fans -- at least in the United States -- should pledge a waiting period on pointless criticism is the NHL's new 10-year, $2 billion multimedia contract with the NBC Sports Group, essentially NBC and a renamed VERSUS (guess: simply NBC Sports Net).
I've seen a lot of cracks at various aspects of the deal -- the continued oblivious, imbecilic (sorry, one mean word) notion that a full return to ESPN is better, that the announcers are terrible, that their local announcers are better, and that VERSUS is everything wrong about hockey.
I'm here to tell you, you're incorrect. This deal could very well be the thing that finally cracks the slab for our game in the mainstream U.S. sports culture.
We have a newly formed company, backed by billions of dollars and cable/network giants, looking to spend money on our sport and the promotion of it, and the improvement of it's broadcasting. A network that will increase it's originally produced broadcasts by 50 percent in the next year. A network that will spread every playoff game across networks, NCAA Tournament-style. A network that wants to own the broadcasting rights across all platforms for a decade, and is willing to continue to build this sport on TV over the long-term.
That's a partner I want.
The past is gone. Consider VERSUS a new network. We were promised six years ago that VERSUS (or OLN then) would become a competitor to ESPN and bid on all available sports packages. Well, the fact is that they didn't have the power to get what they wanted.
The NFL spurned a $400 million/year offer to air games on it's own network, because they had no relationship with Comcast alone.If Dick Ebersol and NBC Sports had been running the network then, there's no way they don't allow NBC's cable partner a shot at NFL games. You never know, it may still happen. An 18-game season (let's face it, it's going to happen) will almost certainly create a new package of games.
Don't forget: NBC Sports already has properties it can extend to VERSUS. The network will be airing shoulder programming of horse racing's Triple Crown. They aired the Notre Dame Blue vs. Gold spring game, and there's a real good chance at least one Notre Dame regular season game will be added to VERSUS this upcoming season.
Speaking of the NFL, what are the chances NBC tries to launch some shoulder programming for that on VERSUS? Makes sense.
Then there's what's out there to get. NBC Sports Group is considered one of the front-runners to land the expanded Pac-12's college football and basketball package. Winning that would give the network not only the potential of a week's worth of game programming between the NHL, the Pac-12 and the Mountain West from September through June, but a better presence on the west coast, where VERSUS could most definitely cross-promote Pac-12 games with the late-night, Western Conference NHL telecasts that will likely be added among the 40 new games to the cable package.
Plus, baseball and football deals are up in two years, and the Olympics will be bid on this summer. There's a lot out there to add, and with more competitors, ESPN's going to have a rough go of keeping everything.
Finally, NBC is growing their coverage as well. After staking territory on New Year's Day, they'll look to expand to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, in the earliest in the season a game has been on broadcast TV since the late 1950's. They have the inspired Hockey Day in America, which was a great success and something both the league and the network have told me they want to grow further, to the NHL Network, NHL.com and beyond. Then there's the Winter Classic, and there's a decade now to grow it. The NBC part of the deal is rock solid here.
If there's one thing that I think sums up the NBC Sports Group's commitment (and that is a word I've found myself using frequently during this time) it is this: NBC Universal is going to build the NHL Network a brand new, state-of-the-art (does anyone ever build a non state-of-the-art anything?) studio next door to the one that houses VERSUS' NHL coverage in Stamford, Conn.
For the first time in it's nearly decade-long history, the NHL Network will be given a real American feel to it, which will likely equal more American-exclusive content, more new analysts and more new programming that features the NHL. As I've said before, there were six to seven hours of hockey content broadcast per week in 2006 on American TV. In 2011-12, that number will be 50 to 60 hours.
So, do me a solid, won't you? Let's give this TV thing a chance to really work out. We're about to be a part of what could be a monster, in at the ground floor. This could be the deal that gets the NHL to levels of American viewership never seen before. But even if it's just a small increase, no matter.
NBC and VERSUS like the NHL the way it is. That's the league they've committed too. It's the league we all commit our hard earned dollars and viewing hours. So let's take a lighter tone to it. Hey, it's just hockey, you know? It's fun. So let's have more fun watching it.