A marquee matchup of future Hall of Fame players went unwatched by large segments of two fanbases, not because of a lack of interest but because of a suppressive NHL TV contract with ESPN. The star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals, 4-0, Friday at Capital One Arena in Washington. Evgeni Malkin was brilliant. Sidney Crosby had two goals. With his plumage of gray hair, Alex Ovechkin sat atop the wall at the Capitals bench with a sullen look in a moment of great theater and drama.
I tell you these things because many (or most) of you couldn’t see the game. Good job, NHL. Good job, ESPN. Really good job.
There are no more passionate, intense, and loyal fans than hockey fans. Shoved to the dark corners of the media landscape by bigger competitors, hockey fans — even those from rival teams who hate each other as a matter of birthright and principle — share a bond. They, we, love the game.
And our game is being diminished while we are being gouged.
The NHL has allowed ESPN to bogart its product, hide it behind a paywall on an eight-inch screen, and in its place serve minor college football swill or another 30 for 30 to an American audience while its premier matchup is shoved to an app on your smart TV, laptop, or phone.
At the hotel restaurant after the game, the huge sports-fan contingent asked me what had happened. The superfan behind the bar was a bit salty that he couldn’t watch the game. Yep, the Washington Capitals season-opener and home opener was only available online, shutting out tens of thousands of fans, some of whom may only tune in occasionally.
Why take away one of the biggest draws of the year?
Nor could Capitals or Penguins fans could gather in public on a Friday night to watch their team.
That’s all so, so stupid.
Perhaps the NHL should tell the increasingly cash-strapped Mouseketeer network and Disney to shove its billions. For a sport desperately trying to expose a national audience to its brilliance, ESPN is harming the game.
ESPN is hiding hockey, and hockey is worse for it.
Seriously, Crosby vs. Ovechkin online only?
Sure, this is 2023, and nearly everyone under 30 lives on their phone while watching movies and what used to be television in that manner. To only put the game on ESPN+ and Hulu, which is only good for Scrubs reruns, excludes more than half of the loyal home fans.
That seems like a bad idea.
Sure, the NFL and Amazon have a Thursday night partnership in which you must give the online monopoly your monthly tribute to watch the usually half-speed Thursday night game between two tired teams that don’t want to be there.
And sure, the NFL can get away with that level of selfish robbery. The American audience doesn’t need to see Patrick Mahomes carve up the Denver Broncos, it wants to see it. The American audience already loves football and wants more.
The NHL isn’t the NFL.
The American audience does not love hockey. The American audience needs to be exposed to the game at every chance. It needs to see Connor Bedard and Connor McDavid. As the hockey community, we need to expose the casual peeps to Logan Cooley. Hockey needs to remind everyone of the heavyweights who carried the game for 15 years and will someday have a massive display in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
The NFL, MLB, and even the NBA can afford to hijack fans’ wallets for a single game here or there.
Do you really think the NHL can do that?
Keeping hockey available and free will grow the game and produce more money both now and in the long run, but ESPN doesn’t care about the long run. It certainly doesn’t care about hockey or if it leaves the game in a better place.
ESPN and its owner Disney, the folks who actually managed to kill the powerful Star Wars franchise before Pittsburgher Dave Filoni got his amazing hands on it, are pillaging hockey fans for a few more bucks at the expense of the game.
For those of you strong enough to avoid handing over $23 for the Hulu/ESPN+/Disney wallet-suck to watch one game this month, the Penguins had a terrible start. They were brutal for 10 to 15 minutes, then scored a couple of power-play goals. Evgeni Malkin was spectacular. He tried a beautiful move on a little breakaway, made a gorgeous pass to set up Reilly Smith’s goal, and backchecked the stunned Capitals.
At the end of the seven-year TV contract, or whenever ESPN can no longer afford the payments (It’s been reported that Disney is looking for a cash infusion for the network, which has lost nearly 50% of its TV homes and continues to bleed), ESPN can walk away. The sports network can wipe its hands clean and say it didn’t work or the NHL isn’t worth the price.
Remember when we all thought the NHL needed to return to ESPN for the large national exposure? Oops, it’s ESPN that’s not worth the price.
Sometimes, the grass is not greener. At least with NBCSN, the network figured out the hockey product, and it was a featured entity. NBCSN didn’t hide its best games online, holding them for ransom. Nor did they hide a home opener from the home fans (Sorry Capitals fans, I feel your pain. That’s almost criminal).
Ask Chicago about trying to grow an audience without games on TV as the Blackhawks did during the Bill Wertz ownership. As a business owner, I will tell you about the sagging interest in the Colorado Avalanche as their owner and the cable megalith battled over the broadcast rights, keeping games off TV.
Out of sight, out of mind.
It’s OK to put the games online. In fact, most games SHOULD be online, so we can all enjoy them on our chosen device. That would GROW the game, but the games — and hockey — cannot be confined to the small devices for only the paying few.
Shame on you, ESPN. Shame on you, NHL, for allowing it. Double-shame on both of you for not fixing it and updating the contract language to benefit hockey fans who deserve much better.
Or maybe hoping a better day comes is living in Fantasia.