I’m sure that the NHL's new TV deal with Versus/NBC will be met with the usual hemming and hawing that usually accompanies NHL TV deals that don’t involve ESPN. There’s a notion out there among the public (and various writers) that seems to interpret the fact that the NHL isn’t on a “major” network as forever imprisoning the game in “niche” status. And when you think about it, that’s not really a bad thing at all.
The world of mass media, because of the internet’s expanding influence, has completely changed since the NHL Lockout of 2004. Major networks are dying, and get a fraction of the audiences they used to get. ESPN used to be “the” place to go for sports news, information, and analysis. But that’s just not the case anymore. If I want team-specific news and information, I can go to Japers' Rink or any of the other SBNation Blogs. I can get instantaneous news and analysis of much better reliability and quality from Puck Daddy than I could ever get from ESPN. I have Twitter to make bad jokes during games with my friends. Frankly, I don’t even really need cable because I can stream live games on my computer. The days where we all relied on one single source controlling the story, the backstory, and the reaction are all ending.
And still, it won’t change the message you will hear in the following days on how the NHL is missing the boat on not signing with ESPN. Comcast (which just merged with NBC) is one of the largest ISP’s in the entire country, and is also its largest cable conglomerate. It’s on the verge of being a major player in the televised sports game because of its ability to bundle so many services together. You can’t tell me the NHL would have been better off taking less money to get two games a week on ESPN2 and being billed behind SEC football, the NBA, the NFL, and Major League Baseball. With Comcast/NBC they get to be the top dog.
Here’s the other relevant statistic. The NHL’s last contract was for around 75-80 million a year. This new contract is for 200 million a year. That shows how much the game has grown, the power of its young superstars, and the potential fallout of lockouts in the NBA and NFL (and good luck finding anyone to praise the guy who’s pretty much made it all happen, and deserves all the credit, Gary Bettman).
The NHL doesn’t need ESPN any longer to be “relevant” (and what is “relevant” these days is a significant topic for debate). With how the market has segmented towards the individual, the NHL is best served by embracing new technologies (the internet especially) and not hitching its horses to the same old tired cliché wagon that is ESPN/Disney. Booyah.