Hockey fans that have lamented the day in 2005 when the NHL and ESPN ceased to be broadcast partners, take heart; In an interview on the BSN Avalanche Podcast on Thursday, ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor and part-time hockey broadcaster, John Buccigross, said he believes his network and the NHL will become partners again within the next three years, when the league's current U.S. television contract with NBC expires.
"I'm real optimistic that we'll be a part of the NHL plan next time," Buccigross told BSN Denver. "I'm not in the negotiations or decisions, but the negotiations open up in two years, and the (NBC) deal ends in three. There's no doubt ESPN (was) very aggressive last time trying to get the package, and we'll be very aggressive this time.. and I feel good about our chances to get some.. to have games in the next package."
Buccigross, who recently signed a new five-year contract to stay at ESPN, called it his "long-term goal" to be a regular play-by-play man for NHL games. He is the current play-by-play man for the NCAA Frozen Four, broadcast annually on ESPN, and he called games during last year's World Cup of Hockey for the network. He is a former host of "The NHL 2Night" on ESPN2, and has become widely known for his #Bucciovertimechallenge hashtag on Twitter, where people who correctly guess an overtime playoff goal-scorer win T-shirts with the moniker on it that Buccigross personally puts in the mail himself.
To date, Buccigross said sales of his burgeoning #Bucciovertimechallenge branded products have resulted in more than $250,000 donated to various charities.
The NHL's formal partnership with ESPN ended in 2005, when the network opted out of what had been a partnership that began in the early 1990s. When the league resumed after the canceled season of 2004-05, the NHL broadcast games on the former OLN Network, with a bare-bones agreement with NBC to broadcast a handful of Stanley Cup Finals games. Games were seen on the former Versus Channel after that, until Comcast-owned NBC and the NBC Universal Network gained exclusive U.S. broadcast rights. The NHL maintains a separate, more financially lucrative television partnership in Canada with Rogers Communications.
While the NHL has enjoyed good ratings on NBC at times over the years and the league seems to have a fruitful relationship with Comcast, there are many who believe the league lost a lot of luster in the U.S. when its marriage with ESPN ended. And there are also those who believe ESPN also lost out, as hockey continues to have a strong demographic with the "upwardly mobile" and a growing youth hockey scene in the U.S.
"I think it's a niche sport, but there's riches in niches," Buccigross said.
Buccigross maintained that the ultimate decider on a potential NHL-ESPN reunion is commissioner Gary Bettman. While relations between Bettman and ESPN were frosty for several years after the breakup, indications are that things are improving. The league's agreement with ESPN to broadcast the last World Cup was seen as a beacon of hope for a full reunion, and Buccigross believes it would be a fruitful one.
"Now, whether the NHL is going to go with multiple partners, like very other sport does. ... you know, you can't afford the NFL (alone), because every game is national obviously, there's no local games. The NBA, there's so many games (that) we share with TNT. And baseball has a million. So whether or not we split it and we have some and another carrier has some, we'll see," said Buccigross, who said he considered leaving ESPN to be a play-by-play man for two NHL teams before renewing his contract.
"But yeah, I think we're in a position, with our new BAM investment that we made with MLB Media, that's a huge technology investment that ESPN and Disney have made (and we'll own the whole thing soon, 100 percent of it) that's going to give us a great position, tech-wise, for apps and things and the future of streaming. I think we would be a very attractive partner, with obviously plenty of networks and plenty of channels."
To listen to the entire podcast with Buccigross, click here.