Before the 2005-2006 season, the NHL took a gamble. The league left behind the safety and security living in the ESPN metropolis, their 24/7/365 promotion machine, and their hundreds of platforms for NBC and the out-in-the-sticks Versus Network. The NHL became the only one of the four major sports to not have any television relationship with ESPN as they became the top sport of NBC and the fledgling Versus.
Initially, the move from ESPN to NBC/Versus was met with question marks. In fact, the league wasn't even paid an upfront rights fee and instead split revenue with the networks. However, the NHL had at NBC what they never could get at ESPN - the focus of a network as its flagship programming. But make no mistake - this was a roll of the dice for Gary Bettman and the NHL.
Six years later, the NHL-NBC marriage has largely been a success story. The Winter Classic stands as one of the best innovations in sports as the NHL has carved out its own space on New Year's Day against college bowl games. Ratings in recent years for the Stanley Cup Finals have been terrific for the league. Game 6 of Flyers/Blackhawks in 2010 drew a 5.8 overnight rating, the highest for the NHL in over 30 years. Game 7 of Bruins/Canucks last year was just behind at a 5.7 overnight. Television ratings for NBC's regular season coverage are up as well - recent Hockey Day In America regional telecasts matched an eight year high for regular season games (excluding the Winter Classic). The league also has the security of its 10 year, 2 billion dollar renewal with NBC through the 2021 season and expanded coverage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and regular season.
But while the NHL enjoys its relationship with NBC, hockey fans are left to bemoan the treatment of their sport by the league's former television partner, ESPN. It's no secret that Bristol is, well, ruthless when it comes to their business practices. And it's also no secret that ESPN helps their own. When the NHL left ESPN, the league might as well have become a niche sport like poker or equestrian. It's a business decision, if not an ethical one. In short, once the NHL was off the "family of networks," the business interests of the NHL didn't match the business interests of ESPN. The NHL simply doesn't rate as highly as other major sports, and ESPN gains very little from trying to get fans interested in the NHL, so it serves them no good from the bottom line perspective to offer in-depth NHL coverage.
This is no surprise to NHL fans. ESPN currently employs one, count it, one NHL analyst - Barry Melrose. (It was two until Matthew Barnaby had to go and ruin his own career with a series of run-ins with the law.) But those are far from the only disappointing statistics in relation to the tumbleweeds blowing across the ghost town that is the NHL's presence at ESPN...