On Friday, the college hockey world learned that the American Sports Network will fold next month.
This was the final year of Hockey East’s ASN deal anyway, so the potential already existed for changes to the league’s TV rights next year. But the demise of Hockey East’s current TV provider gives the league a chance to rethink and reboot their media strategy, and properly set themselves up for the 21st century.
In order to get the most out of their next TV deal, Hockey East needs to think long and hard about what the deal should accomplish. For the foreseeable future, college hockey simply is not going to be a big TV moneymaker. As such, the TV deal should not detract from the live product - as the ASN deal did, with 6 PM and 8:30 PM starts.
The goal of Hockey East’s TV package should be to give the people who are interested in the product the level of access necessary to stay engaged and informed, and keep them coming back to the rink - or keep them connected if they’ve moved away from the region and can’t continue to attend games in person.
According to multiple people with connections to Hockey East programs I discussed this with over the weekend, the league and teams appear intent on trying to secure a “national” TV deal, to keep up with the Big Ten (BTN) and NCHC (CBS Sports Network). But they need to be careful about how they do this.
A “national” deal - which ASN ostensibly was, with its regional sports network affiliates - might not really mean all that much for access to the product. Even the CBS Sports Network, a “national” channel, is something only available on a premier/sports tier for most cable subscribers - in an age when cord-cutting is becoming more common than subscribing to more premium tiers.
The other “national” options aren’t much better. It’s doubtful NBCSN would strike a deal with Hockey East, given their Notre Dame affiliation. Hockey East programming wouldn’t be popular enough to bump the soccer, NASCAR and MMA programming on Fox Sports 1. Nobody gets Fox Sports 2. MAYBE you could snag a deal with occasional ESPNU/ESPNNews games. Otherwise, pretty much every other network is too obscure to really do much to move the needle (BeIN Sports? Some rebirthed form of ASN?).
While getting on television still matters, Hockey East needs to set itself up for the future and use this window to move the conference to a robust, uniform, league-wide streaming platform. That should be the first priority.
The NCHC and WCHA have leaguewide, uniform streaming services. Hockey East would be well-served to do something similar, but why not go one better? These western services are of fine quality, but run you $10 for one game or $60 a month. With the amount of sports available to stream for free online these days, that’s not a particularly appealing package unless you’re a diehard fan of one specific team.
Youtube, Facebook Live, or WatchESPN offer three possible platforms for Hockey East to deliver free, high-quality, ad-supported streams of all league games. This would make the league a leader in access to its games in an era when Chromecast, Roku, and the future YoutubeTV service are the wave of the future - not premium cable networks.
With YoutubeTV coming online, they’d be likely to heavily promote native sports content. Quinnipiac and RPI are two examples of college hockey programs that stream all their games on Youtube, in high quality and compatible with Chromecast and similar services.
WatchESPN has the benefit of ESPN branding, and the possibility of tying it in with the occasional picked up broadcast on ESPNU or ESPNNews (which Big Ten hockey does get on occasion).
Facebook Live is moving in to the sports streaming world, recently landing a robust deal with Major League Soccer to air a game of the week, combined with a weekly, league-wide pre- and post-game show that fans can stream on their phones while on their way to or from the stadium, or pull up on their tablet or Chromecast at home after watching their team’s game.
To me, the best-of-both-worlds scenario for Hockey East is:
-Some manner of game-of-the-week local TV deal on either NESN, Comcast Sports Net, or maybe TV38/WHDH if that’s possibly in play. Maybe you could make the much-reviled occasional weeknight games your TV games, as we suggested earlier this year.
-A uniform streaming service that combines a leaguewide pre/post-game streaming show sandwiched around streaming coverage of every game other than the televised game of the week.
Reportedly, the league has had an issue moving to any sort of unified streaming platform in the past because the schools like having control over their own streams. Too bad. The conference needs to lay down the law here - streaming rights should be part of the conference’s TV rights deal. It’s 2017. The schools need to see the big picture here and realize access to streams is more important for exposure than the $9 they get from the same 100 people each week to watch their medium-quality, rinkydink stream called by the home radio broadcasters.
Streaming should also be a factor in deciding which TV station to partner with. Beggars can’t be choosers, and Hockey East is unlikely to be a highly in-demand TV product — but if Hockey East has a choice between, say, NESN, and its continued lack of any online streaming product in 2017 - or Comcast SportsNet, which makes streams of all Celtics games available on NBC Sports Live Extra - the one with the streaming plan should win out.
For a league that so often feels stuck in 1978, Hockey East has an opportunity to win the digital access race against the two other major college hockey conferences. Let’s hope they take advantage of this chance to really rethink things. If they come back next year and everything remains the same, except there’s 12 games on NESN replacing the ASN deal, it will be a disappointment and a missed opportunity.