If you want to watch professional hockey this year, you have an unlikely source to turn to. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League will be airing a few games on ESPN3, the internet outlet provided by ESPN.
ESPN has notoriously lowballed the NHL when trying to secure a television contract for the league, most notably when the NHL was locked out the last time. IT aided in the development of the NBC Sports Network after the League went to what was then OLN, became Versus and eventually was rebranded NBC Sports. It was a rather impressive transition, and it was almost entirely fueled by the attention brought by the National Hockey League.
Of course, ESPN is still the dominant sports network, and NBC and all of it’s titles are flagging behind the rest of television. While the NHL may have been well served if they were on ESPN, it’s not entirely clear that that’s the case, given the soaring revenues of the league. NBC has elected to re-up because they are seeing some serious cable benefits. ESPN hasn’t increased their offer, mostly out of their own hubris. Why WOULDN’T someone want to be on ESPN?
Perhaps because of that attitude, an oversized dose of insulted pride, the NHL is going to air those KHL games, perhaps to snipe at the NHL, who is not playing. In ESPN’s opinion, I am sure there are two positive eventual results. A) The KHL does really well, which proves that, if even Russian hockey plays well on an ESPN, it behooves the NHL to make the move too. Either that or B) the KHL does poorly and ESPN can use it as evidence that hockey is not popular in North America, and lowball the NHL again.
Either option is driven by ESPN’s hubris, and with the NHL on NBC for a few more years, this move reeks of sour grapes more than it does good business sense.