Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ESPN Acquires World Cup of Hockey

The NHL recently announced that it is bringing back the World Cup of Hockey, a tournament of national teams from Canada, the U.S. and Europe who are competing to decide the best hockey country in the world. This new competition, which starts in 2016, has led to speculation that the NHL will ban its players from the Winter Olympics in 2018.

The tournament will begin before the NHL season in September and will be telecast nationwide in the United States and Canada. The only question hockey fans had was where these games will be seen. Canadians got their answer last week when the NHL signed its rightsholder, Rogers Sportsnet, to a deal. Fans expected TSN to win after they lost NHL rights to Rogers and executives at the network thought they submitted the higher bid. It is believed that Rogers matched TSN's offer and that the NHL never gave TSN a chance to send a counter offer, according to The Globe and Mail (owned by TSN's owner).

The biggest shocker came in the United States when a reporter from TSN tweeted that ESPN outbid Fox and NBC for the rights to the WC of Hockey in the United States. It was expected that ESPN would put a bid in but the real competition was believed to be between Fox and NBC since Fox only has one marquee winter sport (Big East college basketball) and NBC is the current NHL rightsholder for years to come.

ESPN has been criticized in the past for neglecting hockey during its talk shows and on SportsCenter. No one really believed ESPN had real interest in anything hockey-related since their schedule is already so packed.

This is not the first time ESPN has "cooperated" with the NHL since ending their partnership in 2004. They've recently allowed their singular hockey analyst, Berry Melrose, to analyze games during the NHL Network's studio shows over the past couple of years.

This new partnership has more questions than answers but I'm sure we'll learn more details as the day progresses.

1. Will ESPN promote the NHL more during their talk shows and SportsCenter as part of this deal? Coincidentally, Tuesday night's (February 3rd) episode of SC featured an NHL highlight at the top of the show and a run through of more NHL highlights at 11:20 p.m.

2. Could this deal end up helping NBC inadvertently? If ESPN is able to build WC of Hockey into a legitimate fan favorite, it could draw more interest to hockey and its stars who play during the regular season on NBC. Given NBC's relationship with the NHL, I wouldn't be surprised to see them promoting ESPN's WC of Hockey telecasts. NBC's EPL coverage benefited after soccer's World Cup on ESPN because of a fan desire to watch more high quality soccer. 

3. Why did ESPN acquire this property? I believe this is a direct effect of ESPN losing NASCAR rights. It also shows that despite being a juggernaut, they're not complacent.

4. Why didn't NBC or Fox bid more? NBC spent a tonload of money on the Olympics and is probably saving up for EPL while Fox is saving money for Big Ten rights in 2016. I wonder if the NHL's threat of pulling athletes from the Olympics had anything to do with NBC submitting a lower than expected bid?

5. Fox is the biggest loser. Their two Canadian gems, Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, will now lose yet another opportunity to make their mark on the network and won't get a chance to take part in covering their beloved national sport. They also needed this property in order to bolster FS2. Will it be the final factor which pushes Jay and Dan to another U.S. network or back across the border?

6. Where will these games air? I anticipate ESPN2 being the main carrier of these games with ESPN3 carrying first round games. I'm not sure if ESPN2 will be willing to preempt their talk shows for the WC of Hockey until the ratings prove themselves as worthy of preempting their popular shows. ESPNEWS is another possibility. Two wildcards? Fusion and the ESPN/NBA OTT 24/7 network which needs other sports to bolster its necessity besides the NBA.

7. Will any supplementary programming come out of this? 30 for 30's based on hockey? EPIX documentaries? All-Access documentaries similar to HBO's show? Does ESPN bring back NHL Live? Would this programming air solely on ESPN or would it be seen on NHL Network and/or NBC Sports Network as well? Any online or social media collaboration?

8. Did ESPN win because the NHL was threatened by the NBA's expanded relationship with ESPN? Under ESPN's new deal with the basketball league, NBA talk will increase on TV and radio exponentially throughout the Worldwide Leader's airwaves. Without this deal, the NHL could've become even more cut off from ESPN's ecosystem than it already is.

Whether Fox and NBC want to believe it or not, ESPN still controls sports conversation and what fans care about. Once in a while, sports radio hosts or an online commentator or someone from one of the league-owned networks or TNT's Inside the NBA will say something which stirs attention but majority of the time it's ESPN which shapes what sports fans are talking about.

I wouldn't be surprised to see more hockey topics on shows such as "First Take" and an actual set at the Stanley Cup Finals after this deal is finalized.

9. Both ESPN (through the X Games and Jon Gruden) and NHL have deals with GoPro and I expect the device to be utilized during ESPN's telecast of games. Shots from GoPro cameras will become content which is easily shareable on the NHL, GoPro and ESPN's massive social media pages.

10. Is NBC's deal with the NHL under threat? No. I think it's the opposite. NHL's ability to get back to ESPN shows how good of a job the Comcast-owned network has done with the sport. Worst case scenario? ESPN and NBC split hockey rights. But that's not until 10 years down the line.

Fans on Twitter are wondering whether Gary Thorne, who only calls college hockey for ESPN nowadays, will make a triumphant return for these games. I'm sure today is a good day for some of ESPN's puck lovers such as Steve Levy, John Buccigross and Linda Cohn. 

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