directory Light the Lamp - a Columbus Blue Jackets blog: The ESPN myth

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The ESPN myth

I've seen a lot negative press lately, such as this piece from Time, about the NHL's television partnership with Versus.

Hey it's that time of year right? Time to dust off the NHL ratings stink stories, change the dates and hit the recycle button.

Of course it's some ole nonsense such as "nobody can find the channel"... "a move back to ESPN would cure all the NHL's exposure problems"... "Versus footprint is too small"... yada yada yada..

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can -- the NHL moving to ESPN to increase it's "exposure" is the biggest myth going in all of sports.

Here's a newsflash folks. The NHL's rating on ESPN, even in the so called "glory years" of the early 90s, were crap compared to the NFL/MLB/NBA. The NHL's TV ratings have always been crap next to those leagues regardless of who the broadcast partner was/is.

..and despite what some of the talking heads would like you all to think.. the NHL on Versus is not doing nearly as bad as they say.

Want proof? Here is an example via an article published by Variety from this year's playoffs:

With two of the rising stars in the league facing each other, last week's game three of the series earned a record-high 1.49 million viewers for the network, becoming the most-watched second-round hockey game since 2002, when ESPN had rights to the NHL.

Whaaa? How can that be when nobody can find the channel? Again..welcome to the myth.

Here are some more numbers for you courtesy of

Currently Versus is out drawing what the NHL previously had on ESPN2 and despite a smaller footprint is only .18, give or take, behind ESPN's ratings.

Again... how can that be? I mean without extensive highlights on Sportscenter how can any league survive?

The myth continues.

As you can see the ratings aren't nearly as bad as some would make you believe when compared to the past NHL ratings. Of course when you compare to other leagues they look bad.. but that has never changed regardless of carrier.

..on a side note, coming out of the lockout ESPN told the league it would only broadcast their games on ESPN2 on a revenue sharing deal. So next to ESPN2 Versus is doing really well. The goal of course is to continue to grow and beat the numbers at ESPN which the gap is certainly closing.

ESPN = been there, done that for the NHL.

The broadcast partner is not the issue here. Versus is doing a fine job in terms of promoting the NHL, treating it well and growing their network and ratings.

Would I like a bigger footprint..? Of course. Would I like a higher profile..? Of course. I'm a realist however who understands where the league came from, where it's at and where they are trying to go.

As they say, Rome was not built in a night and Versus isn't going to become ESPN in 4 years ....and going back to ESPN, a channel that treated the league like dog food and has become too bloated and too cocky for it's own good, is no magic wand to grow the league or it's ratings.

I want hockey to grow it's viewership like the rest of ya. However I view the challenge to grow it much different than footprints and channel surfing. The problem is and has always been that the game just doesn't translate well on TV and that is what really needs addressed here.

We die hards... well, just show us something frozen with nets and we'll watch. The problem is attracting the casual viewers.

The solution? Make the game as fun to watch on TV as it is to attend in person and now we are on to something.

Easy for me to say.

Ask yourself this question? Why is football so great to watch on TV? Hockey has a lot of the same elements in speed, finesse, roles, energy, high impact collisions, passion and drama so what gives?

Is it because everybody has played football? Well not everyone plays golf and it's ratings are good. Not everyone drives a taxi cab at 180+ mile per hour and those ratings are good.

While maybe a part of it, I think it's much more than that.

For one it's event viewing and two it's a very well structured game.

For instance the way the game of football is designed lends itself perfectly to the tube. It's very structured and roles very well defined -- this is offense and this is defense -- one tries to score one tries to stop them. The stoppages between plays allow for multiple replays, breakdowns and of course commercials! Also the stars don't leave the field so they are easily followed. The biggest thing to me, however, is that the camera is able to capture just about all the action in it's frame so the viewer sees most, if not everything, that is going on. You see plays develop and/or breakdown. It's all right there in your living room.

Not so in hockey.

Hockey is not nearly as structured nor the roles as easily defined. It's very fast paced and the game is the only one that allows substitutions in-play most of which are not captured on camera so it's difficult to some to track the stars. The game is also unpredictable in its stoppages and replays are random and unstructured. The biggest problem is that the television does not capture enough of the play compared to what you see live. Rarely do you see plays develop or breakdown.

For instance, how often do you hear this at home while viewing a game....

Nash was wide open up the ice...why didn't Tyutin hit him?

Watch Datsyuk who is trying to receive a home run pass!

Nash is doggin it on the backcheck!

You don't hear it because 9 times out of 10 you can't see it... unless your actually there at the game!

Rarely do you see an on the fly line change and viewers are left saying why did he just dump the puck like that? It all looks like disorganized chaos to a casual viewer. Yet if you bring that same viewer to the game live it all makes a lot more sense as they see the whole pallet and can paint their own picture and it's light bulb time... he dumped the puck because he went to the bench and got a line change.

We all know the problems.. heck problems are easy to point out when it comes to hockey and TV.. The hard part is figuring out a solution or at the very least improvements.

So how to make it better?

In my opinion the NHL, its' fans and critics should be focusing on new technologies to advance the game's broadcast on TV instead of thinkin that a move to ESPN will magically change anything.

Right now they have a very willing partner in Versus with deep pockets who wants to grow their brand and they know that having the NHL as one of it's properties is a way to get there. Both entities need to combine forces and resources to develop new techniques and technologies to broadcast games.

Some steps are being taken.

High definition is a step in the right directing as it's a clean and crisper viewing experience and you can see more of the ice but 1. there aren't enough games televised in HD (right Blue Jackets?) 2. there aren't enough folks who have HD TVs and 3. the technology is not being maximized.

The Winter Classic is a huge leap forward as it finally provides the NHL with a marquee "event" to attract audiences during it's long regular season.

Other innovations like broadcaster's between benches is a nice step and in game interviews with coaches brings you closer to the action. All good but more is needed.

..but what about the actual viewing angles? We've seen rail cams, net cams, helmet cams and behind the net stationary cam used with mixed results. That's okay... you usually have to fail before you find success but the key is to keep trying to innovate.

I've always wondered why the NHL and it's partners do not explore broadcasting games the way they are displayed in video games? Which is a north-south viewing experience versus an east-west style.

Hockey video games are one of the most popular sports games going. Heck last year's EA Sports NHL08 was rated the year's best video game buy many publications.

Yet no complaints about following the action or seeing the puck in those.

Yes I know video games are a charged up version of the real thing but there are elements that can be utilized.

For one there is a big reason the games are all played north-south. You can see a heck of a lot more of the ice and watch plays develop. It's also a lot easier to follow the line changes for the same reason.

Of course programming a game north/south and broadcasting one are two different animals. This is where innovation and new technologies come into play. Certainly the technology is available to mount some kind of mobile camera over the ice that can move north/south with the action. Yes it would be expensive initially but once the technology is vetted out the price will certainly come down.

It may not work but why not try? Quite frankly I haven't seen anything new tried in this area over the past couple of seasons. Inexcusable if you ask me.

Or what about split screens? Or select a cam views... integrating the TV broadcast with internet streams. So many areas to explore.

The key is to continue to innovate and do everything you can to improve your product both on and off the ice. Think non-traditionally.

The league will probably never reach the heights of football in this country... and you know what, that's okay. As I always tell folks there can only be one #1 but does that mean that #4 stinks? For instance does the #4 grossing movie last week stink? What about the #4 selling album?

This is multi-billion dollar league folks that operates 30 teams in multi-million dollar stadiums across two countries. Some folks pushing their own agendas try to downplay that with the only hammer they have in TV ratings but it's a worn out and recycled story that is more powderpuff than powerplay.

Is there a compromise to be had in that maybe the league can broadcast games on both Versus and ESPN? Perhaps. However I'm one fan who will not be expecting much, if any changes to the NHL's placement in the sports landscape just because ESPN is brought back into the fold. Ratings history has clearly shown us otherwise.

Fire-away - do you believe a move to ESPN would increase the league's exposure?



Stephen said...

I agree on many of your points, mainly the TV cameras. Its time to take advantage of HD. I always thought a camera run on cables (much like the one Football use over the field), will allow to show more depth, and progression of the puck.

Also - The ESPN myth is in place because ESPN ignores any sport the network does not get $ from. NHL highlights are non-existent during the regular season, and the promotional advertisement is never seen. Instead we hear "World Series of Poker every Wednesday on ESPN, beginning at 8pm", not Red Wings vs. Blackhawks.

Nuuuuugs said...

Great read. Every sport should be in HD, especially hockey. Hockey is really an insider's game, and like you said, that's okay, because its number one in a hockey fan's heart. Playing with camera angles is also the way to go, announcers on the bench during timeouts, no so much. It will perpetually be a work in progress.

ateny20 said...

I agree that the switch to espn isn't going to increase the exposure, the problem is that we can't watch the games. there is no reason that a playoff game shouldn't be on free TV. Sure a die hard is going to pay for center ice, but thats not how you grow the game. It is inexcusable that a sport that is considered a major sport doesn't have all of there games on TV especially a game 7. That is the problem I have with the TV situation in the NHL.

This is not a problem with Versus, they do a good job, I enjoy all of there broadcasters and analysts. The Problem is the NHL's arrogance and in ability to accept that they need to take some drastic changes.

Let me know what you think.


LTL said...

Thanks for the comments as always everyone.

My question for AT is how can't you find the games? Do you not get Versus?


ateny20 said...

its not that I don't get the games I just want to have the option to watch the games. this season I sorta adopted Boston as my fav team to watch in the east and I was very frustrated throughout the playoffs because I only got to really watch the end of most of there games. I understand that the Pitt Washington series takes precedent but I'd like to have the option of watching the Boston series as well. If ESPN had the rights to hockey there is no way they would have allowed this to happen. I also would like to see a ESPN, Versus unison one day sorta like how basketball has a TNT ESPN unison.


P.S. LTL I wanted to let you know I'm the guy in 208 who has season tickets next to your partials, we talked a lot during the Pittsburgh game.

ateny20 said...

I feel like my last post didn't fully explain what I meant. Versus only could carry one game at a time so lets say last night the Detroit Anaheim game was on at 7 and the Boston game started at 730. Well I didn't get to watch any of the Boston game till the third period because there it wasn't available anywhere else. I just don't see how the NHL network doesn't at least pick up the games. Its just confusing to me how a playoff game isn't on Free TV. Do you get what I'm saying.


Beau said...

I like the idea of North/South camera perspective... and yes NHL 2009 is the only game that has seen time in my 360 since September. Also, I know there is tradition with the sweaters, but having large numbers on the front of Jerseys would help with identifying players.

patrick said...

Wyshynski had an article with Jack Edwards (Bruins homer) that talked briefly about the espn myth.,153166
im on board with this being a myth. and would you consider that the problem with hockey becoming a bigger sport is related to its requiring a higher attention span because of the speed? and/or maybe its that it inherently has a harder time showcasing its stars (largely due to shifts and icetime)?

LTL said...


Good points and to me it all comes back to the game not translating well to the tube.


Yep definitely remember ya! Is it September yet?


Anonymous said...

I think a happy medium can be struck. Why not give ESPN a "Monday Night Football"-type game? The NFL gets both NBC on Sunday night and ESPN on Mondays...surely the NHL could get the same.

My caveat would be that ESPN needs to give the game the same style of hype treatment that it gives MNF, if not the same amount of airtime.

ESPN is so clogged with programming that the NHL will never get what hockey fans think it why not turn that into a virtue?

Just my $.02. ESPN IS a hype-generating machine, and the NHL could have some fun exploiting it if they played their cards right.

rocket said...

Great post LTL

Morrisvig-I think giving the NHL a one night a weeek, or every other week "MNF" type game on ESPN would be great for the league. There is NO WAY ESPN should ever carry the NHL regularly however.

One reason, amongst all others that have been mentioned, that the game doesn't translate well is that casual fans don't know where the puck is! We saw this from the fox puck back in the 90's... and no i DONT want that back, but this is something HD could help with.

Related to that, casual fans don't know where to look for the puck. When I watch hockey, I usually know where the puck will go (like on a dump in at the center line, a cycle down low, etc...) -just like all of you guys too. But the casual fan doesn't expect that and loses track of the puck.

The north-south idea could be could, or it could be a huge failure... but it's somethingi that must be tried. Again, with HD, I think it would be a good idea... since it will allow you not only to see the width of the ice as you currently can, but you will also be able to see the depth of the ice too, so you can look ahead (or behind) of the play.

I liked how NBC did the Ovechkin cam on the NHL.coms "portal". I actually followed it with the game (even though it was 5 seconds ahead) and it was fun... but not something a casual person would enjoy.

Well that's my two cents.