A few details about plans for a new national sports television network, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which intends to compete with Walt Disney Company's ESPN, surfaced this week in a Bloomberg News story.
According to the story, talks are still private, but early speculation leaves us to wonder: what impact will this have on nationally-televised NHL games in the U.S.?
Follow after the jump for some free-wheeling Friday speculation....
NBC signed a ten-year deal with the National Hockey League prior to the current season, paying $200 million to the league for exclusive broadcast rights. This deal covers the "NHL on NBC" weekend broadcasts, Stanley Cup playoffs and Finals, as well as week night broadcasts on the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus TV -- or the NHL on VS). Considering the Canadian government cut CBC's budget by about 10% in the coming fiscal year, this deal with NBC no doubt leads some to speculate that the iconic "Hockey Night in Canada" program may be on its way out -- Don Cherry fashion fans be damned:
Canada intends to cut up to $5.2 billion a year in its march toward a balanced budget by mid-decade. The government released its 2012 budget on Thursday.
There are two more seasons on CBC's current deal; the network's "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcasts on Saturdays began in 1952 and feature a doubleheader involving Canadian teams. The network also produces Stanley Cup playoff coverage.
NBC pays the NHL $200 million a year for its U.S. broadcast rights; that 10-year contract was signed before the current season.
Don Cherry's "Coach's Corner" segment still dominates "HNIC" broadcasts and was previously reported as a potential stumbling block for negotiations; Cherry, at 78, still uses the first intermission as a bully pulpit for his traditional views of the game and, for that matter, the nation. The most recent Cherry-related controversy cropped up last month, when he escalated his feud with Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, calling the Leafs' lack of Ontario-born players on the NHL roster "a crime."
Among other television properties, News Corp. owns all the regional FOX Sports networks and affiliates, and FOX Sports Tennessee is the current home to the Nashville Predators (and our beloved Pete Weber and Terry Crisp). Currently, NHL teams are permitted to contract with regional broadcast networks to cover a certain number of games per season, and many teams currently have deals in place with their FOX Sports affiliate.
So what would a national FOX Sports network mean to the current hockey broadcast landscape?
Some would argue that more competition would put downward price pressure on subscriber fees. With more national sports networks competing for the same carrier access, they'd all have incentives to lower their fees, ultimately meaning that viewers pay less per month for the same access to sports content. And as the argument goes, this would be a good thing.
But when thinking about the market dynamics for hockey broadcast coverage, there's still only one National Hockey League. If News Corp. entered onto the scene with a national FOX Sports network, and it wanted to compete with NBC for NHL broadcast rights, the NHL would have monopoly power over the two. With only one supply of broadcast rights, but increased demand by the two networks, the $200 million dollar deal NBC currently has could go the way of the dodo in favor of a larger deal with a competing network. That competing network would pass costs along to carriers, which would mean that we, the subscribers would wind up paying more per month -- not less.
And it's not like a new national network would necessarily mean that we'd see more televised hockey in the U.S. Regardless of how TV contracts shake out, there are still only 82 games per team per season. The best case scenario for hockey fans would be for a national FOX Sports network and NBC to strike separate deals with the NHL, and effectively increase the amount of national broadcasts (in addition to existing regional broadcasts of the nearby franchise's games). That's about the only path forward I see that benefits NHL fans in the aggregate.
One possible scenario involves FOX Sports (national) being able to syndicate a FOX Sports Tennessee broadcast nationally. The devil would be, as they say, in the details. If the regional networks were made subsidiaries of the larger FOX Sports entity, and the contract with the league permitted them to transfer the licenses from subsidiary entity to parent company, either on an ad hoc basis or as part of a larger framework agreement, then I can't imagine it would be out of bounds. In fact, it might be pretty interesting to see games in which star players return from injury, or games in which high-profile trade acquisitions make their debut with their new teams, being bumped up to national coverage on an ongoing basis. Another possible scenario would be that (in my best case scenario) NBC would get one full slate of national games, FOX would get another full slate of different games, and regional networks could still be able to contract with nearby franchises to cover regular season games.
But something tells me that neither News Corp. (which netted about $3 billion last fiscal year) nor NBC (a property of Comcast, which netted over $4 billion last fiscal year) are interested in making any moves that nets either or both less revenue, even though the NHL certainly stands to benefit (as a monopoly supplier of broadcast rights) from the potential competition.
In any event, this isn't anything Predators fans should worry about -- at least, not until 2021.
The NHL did not return a request for comment on this post.
So what do you think, Preds fans? Are you happy with the current hockey TV market? What's your ideal scenario? Sound off in the comments!