Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Strike that Change Sports

September 16th 2004 started a strike followed by a lockout that would change sports forever. The National Hockey League canceled what would have been its 88th season, and put the already semi-important sport on the fringe of becoming irrelevant. The NHL became the first (and only) sport to cancel and entire season of play. All the details are interesting but not all that important. What is important is that hockey became a damaged sport. ESPN, the monopoly of national sports, decided to drop the NHL from its TV contract.

What came next was believed to be the death of the sport, but has spawned into the birth of something greater. The NHL decided to sign on with Versus (Actually the Outdoor Living Network O.L.N) for a seven year deal. They also signed local deals with Comcast sport networks and in a few markets the fox sports channel. For those seven years ESPN continued to ignore the NHL and actually increased its coverage of other sports such as Nascar and Soccer. It looks like the Versus deal panned out for both sides. The NHL has seen steady attendance increases as well as viewership over those seven years.

Most would think, so what, VS is cable only television channel, and there are less than 10 nationally televised game. The NHL wasnt stupid, it needed a new twist to attract a larger market of viewers. Besides changing the rules to allow more goals as well as to end games in a shootout instead of a draw, they started the Winter Classic. The Winter Classic is viewed on NBC, which has held the contract for the past 4 seasons.  What is of greater interest is that NBC just bought Versus. Another thing to note, Comcast just bought NBC. Recall how I mentioned that the NHL has local deals with Comcast Sports Network.

The NHL contract with Versus expires shortly, and they needed a new contract with a television channel. There were a few bidders, but most notably Versus as well as ESPN made bids for the next 10 seasons. The NHL had "no regrets" with their choice of Versus, and signed up with Versus for the next 10 seasons. With a major sport under its belt, NBC,Versus and Comcast (which are all really the same), decided to test their luck and create the second 24 hour news network. This means that the monopoly of ESPN now has some competition, and they already have their foot in the door with three sports. NBC also owns the rights to the NHL, College Football (Notre Dame) and NFL (Sunday Night Football). It can get enough footage to start a decent competitor.

Now this network could flop, but what it showed was a weakness in ESPN. They did not have faith in the NHL years ago and it may come back to bite them. In the same year ESPN lost the rights to the 2014 world cup to Fox Sports (a much smaller provider). NBC sports network (pending a super cool name , maybe NBCSP or NBSPN) is at least going to have the NHL for the next 10 years and that is something to start.  And it all started because of a strike, a strike that injured a sport, but rebuilt the networks it was shown on. Now only if NBC Sports can get @buster_olney to get insider information

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