Thursday, August 18, 2005

Can OLN Help Rescue NHL?

As a long-time, ardent hockey fan, I'm looking forward to the return of the NHL after a year's absence caused by the owner's lockout of the players. A new Collective Bargaining Agreement is in place, new rules designed to open up the game are set to be enacted and - hopefully - a rejuvenated group of players is preparing to launch an exciting return to the ice.

What the new NHL won't have is its longstanding television contract with ESPN. Instead, the NHL will be moving its cable/satellite network affiliation over to the relatively unknown OLN, formerly called the Outdoor Life Network. Best known, I suppose, for carrying Lance Armstrong's pursuit of Tour de France immortality, OLN and its parent company - ComCast - are trying to develop a sports network that eventually may compete with the likes of ESPN.

ESPN had the right to match OLN's offer to the NHL, but they declined to do so yesterday. Essentially, it came down to the NHL either taking less money from ESPN to get greater exposure or taking the better financial offer on a less prominent network. The NHL took the money. Only time will tell if they made the right decision. Over fifteen years ago, the NHL elected to take more money from SportsChannel instead of sticking with ESPN. In the process, the NHL cut its cable viewership by about 80%, since very few cable systems carried SportsChannel. Good short-term decision to grab the bucks; bad long-term decision because the sport virtually disappeared from many fans' televisions for several years.

ESPN had tired of the NHL's dismal TV ratings in recent years. In fact, re-runs of poker matches from Vegas were getting higher ratings than professional hockey. So ESPN decided it didn't need the NHL any more. Ultimately, it may benefit the NHL to have a fledgling broadcast partner that is eager to showcase the sport as its crown jewel. If they also focus on presenting the league in high definition, something that will improve the viewing experience for a lightning fast sport played with a relatively tiny black puck, then the NHL may once again join the other major pro sports leagues in terms of fan interest and television viewership. Again, time will tell.

While the long lockout left me a bit wary and skeptical of the NHL's return, I have begun to regenerate my interest and excitement for the sport. I just renewed my season tickets for the Dallas Stars this afternoon. It won't be long before the puck drops on a new season and on a league looking for a spark. Hopefully the new OLN agreement will help to ignite that spark.

Game On!


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