The NHL trade deadline was yesterday. Watching ESPN you might not have been aware. The word “coverage” would overstate the treatment the tension received on air. Hockey fans might feel this is symptomatic of ESPN’s greater neglect for the sport. So, why does this happen?
Awful Announcing points out the obvious reason. ESPN has no rights deal with the NHL. There’s no incentive to actively deploy the news operation to promote a competitor’s product. This undoubtedly plays a role, though there is a simpler and less sinister explanation, ratings.
ESPN programming functions like a website. The common thread running through decision-making is attracting as many viewers as possible, to sell advertisements, make money and, ultimately, pay employees. Those ratings are measured in minute increments. Viewing programming through this prism, it’s no surprise the network focuses on flash points (real or manufactured), debates (real or manufactured) or individuals such as Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin who are, themselves, flash points and debates. There’s a balance for quality (Outside the Lines), but ultimately the ratings must win out.
The WWL does not emphasize the NHL beyond the odd highlight for the same reason blogs and most of the mainstream media do not. The Sportscenter producer has a chart showing repeatedly the ratings spike when Tebow is on the screen and plummet dramatically when the discussion shifts to regular season hockey. Most often the choice will be one more Tebow segment. If NHL speculation shot ratings up, ESPN would cover it on air, regardless of the rights deal.
There are many ESPN employees who love the NHL. There are people who make decisions at ESPN who love the NHL. ESPN, however, remains a business and it is counterintuitive to cover the NHL extensively on television. It doesn’t rate well and, shut out until at least 2021, they won’t make the same concessions they make for soccer to help it rate well. This lack of ESPN exposure hurts the NHL, but that’s a sacrifice the league made when it left Bristol for more money.
[Photo via US Presswire]