The NHL is moving to ESPN starting next season, and many fans across the hockey landscape are excited. The NHL knows that being broadcast on the popular sports network is going to expand the coverage of hockey and make the game more popular. Moreover, the NHL now has a golden opportunity to become more of a national game and potentially more popular than some sports currently broadcasted on ESPN. The network is a step in the right direction, but there are still a few things that both the network and the league need to take note of as they prepare for the upcoming seven years.
Avoid the East Coast and Big Market Bias
It would be an understatement to say that the NHL doesn’t televise or market many of their teams, especially on NBC, the network that broadcasts many of the major games. If your team isn’t on the East Coast, or in Chicago, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, it’s probable that your team isn’t going to be seen on NBC. The NHL falls into the trap that the teams in big markets or big cities need to be televised more, but the teams that are great only need to be seen by the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There are plenty of good, if not great, teams in small markets or teams that aren’t in cities with hockey reputations. The Tampa Bay Lightning have arguably been one of the top teams of the past decade and are no doubt one of the more exciting teams in the NHL with more than enough talent on their roster. Likewise, clubs like the Carolina Hurricanes or Colorado Avalanche can and should be televised to the public, as they have been playing some of the most exciting hockey this season and in recent years. For ESPN, they should take note of the teams that are playing well and are more exciting and assure that they are broadcasted not just to the casual hockey fan but to the general sports fan who will likely start to gauge more interest in the game when the network starts televising games.
One of the big differences between the NHL and the other sports is coverage of their star players and highlight plays. ESPN will help with the coverage of the game, but the overall effort to build around the star players must be amplified. In the NBA, a player will throw a bounce pass, and it’s trending online within minutes. Meanwhile, Connor McDavid leads a rush past four opposing skaters to net an incredible goal, or Auston Matthews scores a league-leading 21st goal for an overtime winner, and the public won’t see it.
The underlying part of the game of hockey that ESPN should take advantage of is the ability to market and display all the talent the league has to offer. The NHL is more talented than it ever has been, and there are many great players making incredible plays on any given night. Aside from a highlight goal making it on SportsCenter, both the league and network have the opportunity to showcase the talent that is making its mark on the game these days.
Make the Game More National and Not Regional
In the end, one of the big parts of the game ESPN should expand is the coverage from a regional game to a national one. There is this perception that hockey is a sport that is popular in Canada and a few cities in the United States, but that is simply not the case. In recent years, we have seen the game grow in its popularity and how cities like Nashville and Vegas have taken in their teams as their own.
The NHL needs to take advantage of the network deal at ESPN and market the game to a national audience. The casual sports fan will gravitate towards great games, teams, and players, making it all the more necessary for the league to broadcast the best possible hockey on the new network. Moreover, the big plays and moments national audiences capture will force the public to talk more about the greatness the game has to offer. The deal with ESPN is a big win for the NHL, but they have to take advantage of this opportunity properly.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.