Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"
It's a timeless issue: do I stick with the safe bet, or pursue an exciting, yet wildly unproven option? Should I follow the perennial winner or the lovable loser? Soup or salad? Miami or Cleveland?
ESPN or Versus?
Now you see where I am going. The rumor mill has been swirling for months that the NHL will eventually make a move back the Worldwide Leader, maybe even sooner rather than later. In an interview with Sports Media Watch, ESPN's Vice President of Communications, Mike Soltys, when asked about the possibility of ESPN reacquiring rights to the NHL, responded that, "It's got to be a deal that's going to make financial sense for us, and it has to be something that we can get some of the high-quality telecasts. But we certainly have an interest." Some would like to see the NHL back on ESPN, but is that the right move for the NHL? After all, it's not always about what people want; in this case, it's about what is best for the NHL.
Yes, ESPN is the undisputed king of the television sports world. Yes, the Versus Network is notoriously difficult to locate in most cities. These facts don't need elaborating. It's also fairly obvious that ESPN doesn't need the NHL, but does the NHL really need the Four Letter Network? Years ago, in the wake of the lockout's resolution, I hoped that hockey would soon find its way back to ESPN. As the years have progressed, though, Versus has proved more than capable of handling one of the four major sports in the United States. They have, in fact, been... well, rather exemplary.
- You have a play-by-play man that is equally exciting and knowledgeable about the game of hockey in Mike Emrick that Gary Thorne was for ESPN. I'll never forget staying up to ungodly hours of the morning on school nights watching overtime playoff games on ESPN, nearly asleep, only to be jolted awake by the rapturous belting of Thorne for the game-ending goal. I'm positive the man was as excited by the soon-approaching prospect of sleep as the winning team's fans were by the victory. That being said, Emrick is just as enthusiastic, just as knowledgeable, and has the instantly recognizable voice that is so important for a play-by-play caller. Seriously, let's just replace all the fire alarms in the country with Emrick screaming a game-winning call and we'll all be better off. Well, maybe not better off, but you get the point.
-Versus stepped up to the plate for the NHL at a time when the league was struggling to keep its head above water, and while the partnership started off slowly, it has only gotten better and better over the years. The two Stanley Cup Finals broadcasts that Versus had from this latest postseason provided some of the best numbers that the NHL has seen on cable in years. Versus has been doing hockey right. They believe in the league, and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
- However, the most interesting part to me, by far, is the pending purchase of NBC Universal by Comcast. Comcast, in case you are unaware, owns Versus, and the purchase of NBC and its sibling networks by Comcast could potentially open new doors. There's even been mention of the USA Network getting thrown into the mix with Versus and NBC as part of their proposal when the current contract runs out after 2011. Imagine, though: the NHL would remain on NBC, and also receive additional time on a more visible network with USA.
Yes, ESPN is the undisputed king of the televised sports world. Yes, the Versus Network is notoriously difficult to locate in most cities, but that doesn't change the fact that Versus is more committed to the NHL, has just as good a presentation and broadcast as ESPN did, and has (at least, in my opinion), a much more interesting and exciting future than ESPN does. Let's face it: ESPN hasn't exactly been the darling eye of the sports world as of late, what with their ridiculous coverage of Indecision (insert year here) with Brett, How to Lose Your Wife and Your Swing in Ten Minutes starring Tiger, and The Decision. A potential three network deal involving NBC, USA, and Versus hold much more promise than a transition back to the warm, comfy blanket that ESPN provides, where the NHL will, in all likelihood, get buried beneath the NBA, MLB, and NASCAR. More networks would mean more opportunities for more teams to receive TV exposure.
You can't see me right now, but I'm raising a glass of Jack Daniels (which is neither safe nor smart; it's just right), hoping that Gary Bettman will take this road less traveled.