There seems to be a lot of talk on the interwebs about how the NBA lockout is going to positively affect the NHL. The logic here is that with the NBA gone, there will be more people tuning in to watch hockey and that the major sports networks (note: network, singular, as in ESPN) will be forced to cover hockey to fill their programming schedules. The logic is sound, but incredibly flawed with a lot of assumptions. Let’s break down these assumptions:
Assumption #1: People will watch hockey. This is just blatantly untrue in most cases. Hockey is a lot like soccer in the US, it is a niche sport that has die hard fans, and casual fans that love to watch a big hit, pretty goal, or exciting international competitions (the Olympics). The NBA lockout will not force more people to watch hockey, it only affects those that had to make a choice between watching the NBA or the NHL when their teams played on the same day. The NHL ratings will likely go widely unaffected by the NBA lockout.
Assumption #2: ESPN will start covering hockey. False. Comcast/NBC/Versus/NBC Sports has an exclusive contract with the NHL. Games will air on channels under their umbrella only. ESPN will not go out of their way to promote a sport in which they will not cover for the next decade, especially a sport that does not have the same following as the NFL/NBA/MLB. It’s purely a business decision.
Let’s also remember that this joint venture of Comcast/NBC is now a direct competitor to the Disney/ESPN/ABC empire in the sports media world. ESPN will not be doing Comcast any favors, and that includes hockey coverage. If you were hoping for a return of NHL 2NIGHT, then your hopes were for naught.
Assumption #3: ESPN will put more hockey highlights on Sportscenter. This is only partially true. The baseball season ends in November, but there is NCAA football, NCAA basketball, and NFL football still going on. The NCAA football season ends in January, and the NFL season ends in February. There will be plenty of sporting events for Sportscenter to cover in lieu of the NBA. Common wisdom suggests that the NHL will get more coverage during the week, when there are no NCAA football or NFL games to review/preview. However, Friday-Tuesday will be owned by football until their respective seasons end. If the NHL is going to get more Sportscenter coverage, it will be on Wednesday and Thursday when there is no football. The only thing to expect out of this is more hockey plays on Top 10.
Long story short, the NBA lockout will not directly affect the NHL’s ESPN coverage or TV ratings. The success of the Comcast/NBC venture and the NHL will hinge on the success of the NBC Sports brand, and the product on the ice. The product will drive prime time coverage on NBC and NBC Sports, which in turn may force ESPN’s hand into putting a little more coverage into the NHL. This, however, is a long process, and we will be unlikely to see any real results until a few years into this ten year TV deal.