NHL DEAL WOULD MAKE SENSE FOR CABLE GIANT
Comcast's power play?
By Sam Donnellon Philadelphia Daily News
SHHH. Brian and Ralph Roberts are at work again. Don't say a word. Pretend you don't see them.
They like it that way.
Comcast is considering trying to acquire TV rights to the NHL. Quietly. Last year, the Robertses mulled a hostile takeover of Disney and all its toys, which includes ESPN. That was a bit noisier, and then it just disappeared.
Both are attempts to acquire content, a neat, little word that boils down to this: If you have a cable system with 21.5 million subscribers, you must make sure you offer something worthwhile to watch. Otherwise, viewers might just strap a satellite to their chimney or - and this is the really scary part - read a book.
And yet many of you think the NHL's signing on with Comcast instead of ESPN would be a big step backward. ESPN is the franchise. ESPN is the place you find baseball, football, basketball. You read that ESPN might lose hockey to Comcast and visions of SportsChannel America dance in your head.
What's that, never heard of SportsChannel America? Well, that must mean you're a teenager. Because once upon a time, SportsChannel America outbid ESPN for hockey with the thought that it would make its service more desirable to cable providers. Instead, it just made SportsChannel America poorer and professional hockey in this country even more of a rumor than it is now.
Comcast is not SportsChannel. Comcast has built an empire of cable systems and regional cable channels. Unlike SportChannel, which was using hockey to permeate markets, Comcast is already in most of those markets.
It is everywhere. It feeds our television channels, offers Internet access, seems poised to delve into the telephone industry. In these parts, there's only one thing you see more often than that Comcast logo.
And that thing, Michael Barkann, works for Comcast.
Soon, you will see that logo everywhere. My epiphany came at Shea Stadium last month when I looked up on a dining room television and saw the same exact set that Comcast SportsNet uses on "Daily News Live," heard the same exact music, but three Chicago reporters arguing sports for what seemed like an eternity.
"Daily News Live," Chicago edition.
Last week, there was even a mergence of Comcast "talent" at the All-Star Game in Detroit: Pat Boyle, now working for Comcast's Chicago channel: Scott Hansen, now working for Comcast in D.C., and Leslie Gudel, still working here.
Comcast is a network. No, it's your Internet source. No, it's a cable provider. If those Roberts boys wanted to - and were really, really bad businessmen - they could make ESPN disappear from 21.5 million homes just like that.
But the Roberts boys are very, very good businessmen. Which is why buying the rights to hockey, even in its current state, makes sense for them.
But what about the NHL?
"ESPN has already signaled that they're ready to sit down and negotiate something with the NHL," Neal Pilson, the former head of CBS Sports and current president of Pilson Communications, told a Daily News reporter yesterday. "I think they should first see what's available from ESPN before making any other choice, simply because ESPN is the most dominant sports channel out there."
No doubt about it, ESPN is the channel of authenticity. But it is no longer a place of nurture. As Ed Snider intimated earlier this week, hockey has slipped in importance over the years as deals with the three major pro sports were struck. Snider, perhaps swinging for his silent Comcast partners, said ESPN "didn't do a good job for hockey, and, quite frankly I'm glad they're gone."
While the latter part of that may be premature, the front end has merit. ESPN now has packages with major league baseball, the NFL and the NBA. Those who argue, as Pilson does, that ESPN increases the profile of your sport may be operating under an outdated premise. The mainstream media still do not cover the X Games, the Great Outdoor Games (which resemble a really long David Letterman skit), Texas Hold 'Em poker or cheerleading competitions.
You could even go the other way on this, that the NHL would be better served hooking up with one of Comcast's networks. With all due respect to Lance Armstrong, hockey becomes the most interesting thing on Outdoor Life Network the moment the ink is dry.
At ESPN, hockey is one level above the cheerleaders. If the money is the same, what's the big risk, anyway? Nobody watched before. Maybe the Roberts boys can figure out why. They seem to have figured everything else out.