Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Versus vs DirecTV: why the NHL needs a new cable deal

The United States of America has a lot of things going for it. It’s the country of New York and Los Angeles, the “Land of Opportunity” where any dream can be realized because of the country’s massive resources. It’s also home to many super-friendly people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting throughout my travels. However, if there’s one thing I don’t like about the U.S., it’s their hockey coverage.

Poor hockey coverage and America are nothing new. Unlike the other three major sports in the U.S.- football, baseball and basketball- it has never had continuous and extensive coverage on an “over-the-air” network (e.g. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox), with rights being shuffled continuously usually because the network airing the games couldn’t rationalize having hockey games on their network anymore. More often than not, games- including playoff games and even Stanley Cup Final games- are broadcast on specialty channels, usually of the regional variety, with this reality being the case for decades. Chances are, if you’re not a diehard hockey fan and you live in the United States, you wouldn’t even know if hockey was even played.

It is within such a context that we have to look at the latest U.S. TV fiasco, that of national satellite service provider DirecTV deciding to unilaterally remove Versus, the NHL’s cable broadcaster (though it offers little else) from its channel roster on the eve of the NHL’s 92nd season. DirecTV has claimed the move is about Versus’ “outrageous demands”, which DirecTV claims is a 20% fee hike. Versus has contended that it has asked for no such fee hike, instead arguing that DirecTV wants to remove the channel from six million subscribers “at no additional cost”. The mudslinging has hit new lows, with DirecTV’s childish label of Versus as a glorified infomercial with an “occasional sporting event” (it’s a description that’s not exactly off the mark, but not entirely accurate either) and Versus resorting to what amounts to an attempt to orchestrate “organized shouting” with- as Yahoo!’s Greg Wyshynski described it- a PRmy of cute girls mobilized to hand out fliers around Denver and Washington informing hockey fans of the games they won’t be able to watch should DirecTV’s shutout continue and urge them to shutout DirecTV. Apparently Versus believes that if they pout “bring us back or else” loud enough DirecTV will forget the fact that they’re not using any logic at all.

Obviously, in the short term, there’s little reason to side with either company. DirecTV hasn’t made itself look very professional with their remarks, while Versus’ arguments have been laughable at best (it seems to think 832,000 viewers- roughly a 0.8 rating- for its opening night are landmark ratings- never mind that many NBA averages on regional networks are stronger, and I can’t see how DirecTV can justify a national package for what is really a network of niche sports), but the donnybrook obscures the real issue: that the NHL needs better cable stability if it is ever to think of itself as a “major” sport.

How much of this tussle is being encouraged by the NHL is unknown. Aside from a single statement on NHL.com, the NHL hasn’t thrown its weight onto the issue, and it’s speculated that the NHL’s decision to extend the NBC contract for only two more years (when the Versus deal also expires) is an attempt to sell the league back to ESPN (who held the rights before the lockout), or at least entice an ESPN bid. By having Versus’ tenure appear chaotic, the NHL can gain the upper hand in negotiations with Versus, contending they’ll switch partners unless there’s an increase in rights fees, or else the NHL would go to a network that would be “run better” than Versus appears to be running now. Even so, this fight better be ringing alarm bells in NHL circles because at the very least it suggests something is wrong with the cable deal.

The solution goes back to the question about whether or not the NHL should belong on ESPN, and I believe somehow it has to as clearly, the arrangement on Versus hasn’t worked. Despite the ratings growth, the NHL is still viewed a distant fourth in terms of relevance in American sporting culture and, as a channel, Versus has yet to show it’s actually become anything resembling a legitimate “major” sports channel (as it is trying to do), as it’s yet to move on from the niche programming (such as fishing) and land another major sport on its network. It’s obvious that Versus needs the NHL and DirecTV more than either need Versus, because without the NHL Versus has no hope in convincing DirecTV (or anyone else that matter) that it’s a legitimate sports channel. Furthermore- and there isn’t a hockey fan reading this who’d disagree- the coverage on Versus is atrocious. The picture quality is poor, the commentary and announcing (outside of Dave Strader and the campiness of John Forslund) are poor, replays are non-existent and the analysis (especially in between periods) is rarely insightful or even entertaining. In the four years of Versus, I’ve never watched it and thought I was watching a “major league” telecast- the look and feel was second-rate, and those are hard impressions to shake.

Now, truth be told, ESPN’s coverage wasn’t extraordinarily better (Bill Clement just never seems to know when to stop talking, does he?), but it did at least have the feel of a major league broadcast, and it did provide us one of the best hockey announcers of all time in Gary Thorne. Also, while it’s true that even on ESPN hockey would be shoved to the backwater compared to the other sports, the truth is that ESPN is the undisputed sports leader in the U.S., and it essentially dictates what the American sports fan watches. It’s a monopoly that is bad for the business in the long run, but the solution isn’t what the NHL seems to be doing with Versus- trying to prop up a minor channel in the hopes that it becomes a major channel. The NHL tried that once before, in 1988, when they left ESPN for SportsChannel America and you can guess how that turned out.

The move to ESPN even works with what was perceived as a problem, that being the Winter Classic. One of the reasons why the January 1 game works is because it competes with the bowl games on New Year’s Day, all of which are staples of the ESPN/ABC sports schedule of that day, succeeding against them because the NHL contest is actually meaningful vs. the ESPN/ABC offerings. This was a point Michael Wilbon made on Pardon The Interruption following the first Winter Classic in 2008, because while the New Year’s Day bowl games may have special significance to the schools participating in them, they have no larger significance, as none of the games will determine who wins the college football National Championship thus making the bowl games essentially meaningless. The Classic, meanwhile, counts towards the NHL regular season standings, and while one win in 82 games is not significant, one win can still help a team claim a playoff berth or a better seeding enabling them a path to the Stanley Cup, whereas winning a bowl game will not help a school win the National Championship. Furthermore, placing the Classic on New Year’s Day- itself already a day of significance- removes it from likely competition against the National Basketball Association, which does not typically play games in the afternoon of New Year’s Day. It was held that a switch to ESPN would meant having to fit the Classic somewhere on the ABC schedule so it would no longer compete with the bowl games, potentially requiring a different timeslot and a subsequent loss of its allure.

However, starting in 2011, ESPN will broadcast all the bowl games, including the National Championship Game. That opens the door for the Winter Classic to be shown on ABC, as it gives the network the option of showing the “lesser” bowl games on its cable network and have the “big draw” on its “over-the-air” network. It could also serve as a great tie-in to the Rose Bowl Game (which is on at 5PM EST, four hours after the Classic’s start time) if ABC so chooses and considering that the Classic is a ratings hit, it could prop up the flagging bowl games. Furthermore, without NFL commitments on the broadcast network, ABC is free to show NHL games sooner than NBC can: currently, the first weekend of games after the Classic is tied up by the first weekend of the NFL playoffs, which are broadcast on NBC, meaning the first hockey games fans get to see on NBC after the Classic are two weeks later, which no doubt dulls any “Classical” momentum. Of course, this is all predicated on how much ABC cares about hockey and would want the NHL, and you’d have to think if ABC isn’t promising a package similar to NBC, then the NHL will need other options (I think the best one would be TBS, which is reputable and has no other sports other than baseball), but the priority should be to get back on ESPN and thus back into the sports culture mindset. You can’t expect your league to have much credibility if it is broadcast alongside minor college football games, extreme cage fighting and recreational fishing programs as is the case now.

Ultimately, though, this should all be a sign that- again- the NHL ought to stop thinking it can be a “big deal” in the U.S. (for now) and start looking overseas. Hockey writers are belabouring the point here, but how many times do we have to say that the NHL is already filled with international players just begging to play in front of their fellow countrymen and is a step ahead of the still very American sports of baseball, basketball and football (though the latter two are making significant inroads on the international scene)? The player makeup and the existence of a true, legitimate world tournament (that would be the Olympics) suggest a sport that should have a similar sporting structure to soccer (which has teams all over the world) yet the NHL remains insular. Why not join forces with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Kontinental Hockey League and create a global super-league? Europe is a market dying to be tapped and if soccer’s World Cup numbers are to be believed (26 billion cumulative viewers over the course of the tournament!), there’s certainly a lot of potential to acquire a massive television contract overseas. Of course, that would require that NHL have something it’s never had in its history- rationality. Maybe once the NHL wakes up and stops having its dreams then it’ll see what the nightmares of its sports cultural reality have truly become.

-DG


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-DG

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