ESPN's fractured relationship with the NHL has never been worse. SportsCenter treats the NHL with the ambivalence and disinterest usually saved for MLS and other niche sports and NHL fans have abandoned ESPN en masse. Only a token appearance from Barry Melrose out of whatever Bristol dungeon ESPN keeps him in gives professional hockey a minute presence on ESPN airwaves. In fact, it has seemed at times that ESPN has purposely avoided NHL news out of spite if nothing else.
If you've watched ESPN in the last month you would have little idea the NHL is embroiled in another lockout that threatens the sport. You would have no concept of the NHL's growth in popularity in the several seasons since the last lockout or the issues at the heart of the current one. ESPN exec Vince Doria infamously proclaimed from his Bristol ivory tower, "the sport of hockey doesn't translate to a national discussion."
Perhaps ESPN's view of hockey has changed. In spite of the NHL Lockout, ESPN will finally, once again, televise professional hockey this season.
According to the official KHL website, ESPN3 will broadcast games from the Russian League beginning Wednesday. The KHL will see games televised to over 73 million homes on ESPN3 across the United States and in Great Britain...
"The Kontinental Hockey League has reached an agreement with the US sports TV channel ESPN to broadcast games in the 2012/2013 KHL Championship. The games will be shown on the ESPN3 channel in the United States, Territories of the United States, and also in Great Britain.
ESPN3 reaches 73 million American households and devotes most of its output to live broadcasts of events, including college football, college basketball, the NBA, MLB, ICC (International Cricket Council) competitions and qualifying matches of FIFA tournaments."
There are no KHL games that have appeared on the ESPN3 schedule yet, but the KHL announcement says 5 games will air in the next ten days including Dynamo Moscow vs AK Bars on October 3rd. ESPN has also made no announcement concerning the KHL as of yet as well.
ESPN televising the KHL will only serve to drive the stake into the hearts of NHL fans even more as the network is betting against the league once again. Hardcore NHL fans will want to watch the KHL as the best remaining professional hockey league in the world. If the NHL Lockout persists, they will undoubtedly search out KHL games on ESPN3 to see NHL stars playing in Europe and get their hockey fix. ESPN loses nothing in adding KHL games to their library while potentially benefitting greatly from there being no NHL games this season and stealing hockey fans away from NBC.
On the plus side, ESPN will be providing hockey fans an outlet for the sport. They'll also be taking advantage of the same hardcore hockey fans the network has blackballed and discarded for so long. Suddenly, ESPN would own the market for high quality professional hockey. It's a ruthless business move you'd see from a top soap opera villain.
The same network that has ignored the NHL for the better part of a decade will extensively broadcast the KHL and profit from the NHL Lockout.
It gives you a gross, slimy feeling, but it's brilliant business.
I wouldn't exactly use the term "extensively broadcast" for content that's only showing up on ESPN3. Still, it's a nice move by the KHL to establish a toehold here in the U.S. Don't forget that they have a couple games coming up in January at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, too.