Photo: Nick Caito / ESPN Images

No one gives a shit about hockey.

Sorry. Not “no one” in the literal sense. Very few people give a shit about hockey.

Wait, let me specify that very few people in the United States of America give a shit about hockey. It’s an extremely popular sport in Canada, but it’s on par with competitive eating and poker in America. Maybe this will change once we invade and steal Canada’s milk and lumber or whatever.

So when rumors began to swirl that ESPN was planning to lay off 50 or 70 or 100 employees, it only made sense that NHL people would be in the crosshairs. ESPN doesn’t own NHL broadcast rights and pays attention to the NHL the way you pay attention to rotating your tires — every few months you may or may not remember to do it and no one really notices if you don’t. It was inevitable when the layoffs were announced that hockey would take a hit.

And relative to the number of staffers dropped, NHL was massacred. Pierre LeBrun, Scott Burnside and Joe McDonald — three objectively qualified, talented and top-notch reporters in the business — all said their goodbyes on Twitter on Wednesday. The news was released hours before the start of the second round of the playoffs, which speaks to how much ESPN cared about hockey.

Three of 100 isn’t a huge number of layoffs, but when that three represents more than half of the hockey writing staff, it’s massive.

What were the underlying reasons for the hockey layoffs? They’re not really different than the underlying reasons for all the layoffs — ESPN paid too much money for broadcasting rights to other sports leagues, cable rates increased, people cut the cord to ESPN and the network lost money. And since these people aren’t regulars on a sports shouting show, they were let go.

That’s all standard boilerplate stuff when it comes to media layoffs. Changing landscape, less money to go around because media companies haven’t figured out how to properly monetize on other platforms, fat gets trimmed, blah blah blah.

But when it comes to the NHL layoffs, how much blame does the NHL deserve?

We can all agree, even if we like hockey, that the NHL is as popular a senior circuit doubles tennis. Are there things the NHL could have done to make itself more popular and thus making hockey media jobs (how do I even have one?) more secure? Or was hockey always destined to find itself in ratings wars with car shows and late-night replays of that afternoon’s thoroughbred racing?

If the NHL was able to sell its broadcasting rights to ESPN instead of taking the bigger offer from NBC, would the NHL be more popular today? Coming out of the second lockout in 2005, the NHL partnered with the Outdoor Life Network (lol) which became Versus which became NBCSN. After pissing away a full season out of greed and stupidity, the NHL had to take what it could get. But in 2011, the NHL renewed its deal with NBC for 10 years at $200 million per year and, because of the terms of the contract, NBC had the right to match any offer from another network. ESPN was part of the bidding, but NBC was always willing to match what ESPN was willing to pay.

So here we are in 2016 with the NHL on a network that should be promoting the league like that parent who gives constant Facebook updates about a child in a tee-ball league, yet it seems to still be an afterthought, much like it was on ESPN in the 1990s and probably would have been to an extent if ESPN had won the broadcasting contract in 2011.

Can you imagine Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman screaming about Phil Kessel being a locker room cancer? Sidney Crosby being overrated? P.K. Subban being too selfish? Alex Ovechkin being an overrated loser that would never win a Stanley Cup?

Or SportsCenter leading with a 6-5 overtime game between the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild because the game just ended on the network, followed by cogent analysis from… someone? Or substantial talk involving… someone… on trade deadline day? Or free agency day?

Now that you’ve imagined all that, can you say that the NHL would have reached a level of popularity since 2011 (or even 2005) that would have made a hockey media job less expendable?

I’d love to say yes and take an opportunity to crap on the NHL and ESPN at the same time (we call that a Melrose Steamer), but I don’t think anyone can say for sure. Good people probably still get pink slips today.

What if the NHL wasn’t inept at marketing its players? What if it highlighted stars instead of teams, and we didn’t have to watch 15 Buffalo Sabres games per year on NBCSN because that’s a good local market for ratings? What if the NHL and NBC didn’t make us watch the same five teams all the time? What if hockey players didn’t act like wet mops in the front of cameras and actually had or showed personality?

Would any of that over the past two decades have resulted in a bigger dent in the sports media landscape?

Maybe, but asking the NHL to stop shooting itself in the crotch or players to break free of the culture that discourages individualism is like asking Dunkin Donuts to stop the light beer of coffee.

The only thing you can pin on the NHL in terms of dwindling media coverage is the league’s shortsightedness as a whole, specifically three lockouts in 18 years that shut the league down for a combined two years. There’s really no business in the world that can survive that. Well, it can survive it, but there’s no way it doesn’t damage its ability to grow, and if the game isn’t growing, it’s not attracting new fans, and if it’s not attracting new fans, that’s fewer people to consume any NHL-related media.

So is the NHL to blame for ESPN’s hockey bloodbath Wednesday? This is like one of those Law & Order cases where Jack McCoy goes after a gun or pharmaceutical company over something tangentially related to the crime. Yeah, you want to see the evil entity held accountable, but in your heart, you know the argument is too convoluted for any jury to come back with a guilty verdict.

Is there any grand lesson to be learned in all this? To me, the answer is yes and it’s very obvious: Do literally anything else for a living besides something in sports media and specifically hockey media.

This business is awful. It’s way more fun from the outside than it is from the inside. It’s basically one of those traveling fairs that come to your town once a year. It always seems like a good idea yet once you get there, yeah, it’s not the worst, but you will very quickly realize you should have done anything else with your Saturday besides this.

There is no rhyme or reason to who finds success or gets laid off. Skip Bayless is a multi-millionaire! It’s not really a business of merit. That’s fine, because all this is subjective, but before you decide on going after that journalism degree, just know there’s a decent chance you’re going to get laid off at some point no matter the quality of your work. That’s just the way it is. Maybe that changes in the coming years as media companies get a better understanding of new consumption habits.

But by the time people figure out cord-cutting, there will be some new shit people don’t understand. “I used to watch on my phone, but every since I installed the iBrain into my cerebral cortex, I haven’t missed a single minute of the Mars Red Rocks, my favorite Robotball team.” You just don’t know. It’s not that other businesses aren’t susceptible to this, but it feels like anything media-related is on the shakiest ground possible.

You’d think I’d have a point by now, but I don’t, really. Just consider doing something else for a living. You need to win the Bill Simmons Lottery to wind up in his Teflon shoes. It’s way more likely you’ll be a nameless person that loses their job when Lifetime pays too much for the broadcast rights to Women’s Death Ball in 2033 and decides you’re expendable three years later.

Wait, I know the lesson. No matter the year, no matter the platform, no matter what happens in the world between now and when Donald Trump triggers nuclear war, one thing will never change.

No one gives a shit about hockey.

25 thoughts on “ESPN’s NHL layoffs show how little America cares about hockey, how badly NHL markets itself

  1. I don’t even understand this ‘NHL marketing teams instead of stars” argument? Where do you get off that they are doing this and that they are even worse off for doing so?

    1. They are worse off for doing this because you probably aren’t going to get a kid in Topeka to care about the Penguins but, if you could show him how great Crosby is then he might start paying attention to hockey. That’s one of the things that the NBA does so well. They get kids interested in their stars first. They become NBA fans before they have a team that they root for. People might not tune into every game but, they tune in everywhere when it’s LeBron vs. Steph.

  2. I think you can look at the other major pro sport that got substantial cuts Wednesday (there are supposedly big NFL cuts coming after the draft) and have the answer to your questions- MLB is covered by ESPN with Sportscenter lead-ins and a big national game of the week showcase and does a fairly good job of marketing it’s stars but the baseball side still got devastating cuts. And it should be noted, despite ESPN’s baseball coverage, the only time Stephen A Smith has ever really talked about baseball was to knock MLB for the declining numbers of African-American players on Jackie Robinson Day- he certainly has never pontificated about the likes of Andrew McCutchen or Adam Jones on air nor Mike Trout or Bryce Harper.

  3. Dave Lozo….Really? “NHL is as popular as senior circuit doubles tennis….”. Hilarious Dave what a fresh take. This tired old Jim Rome-esque canard that all sports but Football NBA and baseball are lame just doesn’t hold water or matter. The NHL has a very real, very legitimate base of solid sports fans that are usually shared die yards of the big 3 other sports. ESPN isn’t covering the NHL because the entire sports/media/cable house of cards is crumbling – it is a bubble built on false inflated ratings with waning sponsorship due to an over saturated sports market to begin with. Fans don’t need Stephen A Smith’s fake outrage anymore or even SportsCenter’s SPIN on it, we want scores and highlights and tv coverage of events when they happen. Less shows, less “Interuptions”, less phony personalities, and less talking down to us that our particular sports don’t matter. The future of Sports Coverage is ever moving, and smart and open to what’s out there and frankly NOTHING of what we are seeing in current media. These ESPN media types are getting pink slipped by a phony business model that can no longer support a dinosaur product to begin with. Gimme more Katie Nolan’s! F##K ESPN its NHL playoff time and we hockey fans are watching puck on NBC platforms and have long ago given exactly zero shits about the 4 letter ever throwing us a bone. We’re all good here.

    1. He didn’t say that hockey was a bad sport. He just pointed out that Americans don’t care about it. And speaking as a hockey fan this is 100% true. A playoff hockey game this postseason did a 0.0 in the ratings. That’s damn near impossible to accomplish. That’s how little America cares about hockey. You better come to grips with it because once the current contract is up the NHL might not be on TV at all if they can’t improve the ratings of what is supposed to be the most watched time of their season.

      1. Lies, nhl playoff ratings have been up this year. Where did you get that false stat from?

        NBC loves the nhl. They definitely not in jeopardy.

        ESPN made a mistake with the tv contracts and now they finally realizing it the hard way. At the end of the day, nhl is glad they’re not involved with the mess call espn. NBC was the right choice.

        1. You are right. The article that I read was an old article. I misread the date. However, according to this article,, the NHL playoffs on NBC did a 0.6 which was the same ratings that another NBC show, Powerless, did that were just good enough to get it cancelled. The same night the NBA on ESPN according to this article,, did a 1.2. I’m sure that NBC is ecstatic that they got creamed by a cable channel and that ESPN is miserable that they dominated the night.

          1. I’m sure Lorne Michaels is thrilled at the prospect of “Saturday Night Live” being delayed by Stanley Cup Playoff games that go multiple overtimes.

          2. With the resurgent ratings that SNL is having due to Trump, Michaels has got to be having a stroke about the NHL.

          3. Which is exactly why I suspect we may see the Kentucky Derby move to prime time next year if the “live everywhere” experiment with Saturday Night Live (that is going for the rest of this year) continues through next season (with if so, the Derby telecast being 8:00-11:00 PM ET on NBC with the Derby itself going off at 10:10 PM ET to assure that post-race coverage concludes at 11:00 PM ET ahead of late local news). The Derby as it is would have been the #1 rated show for the week it aired had it been in prime time and having the Derby telecast as a lead-in, SNL can have an even bigger name than usual host that week with NBC cross-promoting the night quite heavily.

            If Lorne Michaels wants the Derby in prime time to lead into SNL, I think he gets it.

          4. Not always. They had a new SNL following a playoff game on April 15, the first “live everywhere” SNL (new SNLs for the rest of this season are airing live in all time zones as opposed to be on delay west of the central time zone) and I believe that will also be the case May 6, 13 and 20 (May 6 & 20 will likely see more time for such since those Saturdays, a Stanley Cup Playoff game likely starts at 7:20 PM ET, following the Kentucky Derby 5/6 and the Preakness 5/20).

          5. 1. NBC tweeting the ratings means they are happy. Plus the games made top 50 cable shows on most nights.

            2. $200 million per year for the nhl compare to 1.4 billion for the NBA. The NBA ratings are good but not NFL good to be given 1.4 billion. You better believe NBC is happy. Espn is hurting one year into the deal already. Nbcsn and the golf channel is actually adding subscribers, that means they are making good business decisions.

            3. Nhl is not a niche sport, a niche sport is mma or boxing. Nhl makes $4 billion per year and the NBA makes about $6 billion. Not really far apart.

          6. 1. NBC tweeting about the ratings means that they are trying to spin that they are happy with the ratings. They are trying to get out in front of a bad story or at least a story that could look bad to advertisers. If the ratings were that good they would let them speak for themselves.

            2. How much was paid for the rights has no bearing on the demo ratings. All that matters is the demo ratings because that is how they get advertisers to pay for commercial time. A 0.6 in prime time on one of the “big 4” networks is not a great number to sell advertisers on. Adding subscribers means nothing if people aren’t tuning in.

            3. The NHL and the NBA have the same amount of teams and games per season and the NBA makes 50% more money being a primarily American sport whereas the NHL also has Canada to lean. They’re far enough apart that it matters.

  4. I don’t agree with a whole lot in this article but I think it’s worth noting that the only reason televised poker ever became a thing was ESPN started airing the World Series of Poker in primetime as a result of the NHL lockout in 2004-05. The NHL went looking for the highest bidder instead of the most eyeballs and that plays a large role in the current state of the NHL in the US, short-term profit in the mid-2000s was prioritized over long-term relevance.

  5. $80-100 lower-level ticket prices with 1/2 of the seats unfilled. If I cant afford the games, it makes it tough to be a fan. Too expensive and too much downtime at the arena with lots of long TV timeouts and long replays.

  6. In the US, hockey is no where near basketball and baseball’s level, and NOTHING is on football’s level. The idea that there are “four major US sports” is a myth. Sorry, NHL people. Hockey is a second-tier spectator sport alongside non-World Cup soccer, major golf tournaments and NASCAR races–the ratings for Stanley Cup Finals compared to the World Series, NBA Finals and CFB/MBB National Championship Games are proof of that. Facts are facts. Anyone who things otherwise is just stuck in their Northeastern/Upper Midwestern bubble.

  7. The NHL is not on ESPN, that is why they do not cover it extensively. From their business model, it does not make sense to highly promote something that is on another network as opposed to what is on their network. That is it really, We have seen NASCAR coverage take a dip since it left the network too, no one talks about that.

  8. If america doesn’t care,why does the nhl have such great attendance records??!!??
    Please replce your article with “kill whitey” repeated 100 times so you can get into Stanford…

  9. Is this supposed to resemble actual journalism?

    “No one gives a shit about hockey.”

    A statement that’s both a generalization and mean-spirited………AND features an obscenity. And it both opens AND closes the article. I could write similar things about the writer of this article, Dave Lozo. Or this entire website — “The Comeback”. About how you aren’t household names, or even particularly notable names within your respective crafts. But I won’t wax on that for an entire article, because it isn’t productive, it isn’t entertaining, and it isn’t in the best interest of, well, anyone. People like the things they like, and shouldn’t have to feel ashamed of it. Popularity does not directly equate to quality, or greatness, or even well-being. Justin Bieber has more YouTube hits than Johann Sebastian Bach does. Adam Sandler sells more tickets than documentaries do. Wanna generalize about how no one gives a shit about Bach, or documentaries? The only time most of us were subjected to an environment where popularity and quality were viewed as equals, was in middle school. Perhaps high school too. Maybe that’s why many of us look back at that angst-filled era in our lives with a wisening chuckle.

  10. I would watch the NHL if I there were enough games broadcast on non-premium channels. When there are only a handful of games over the course of the season you can’t get into it. I’m an expat Canadian, so if I can’t get into it those who have never played the game are going to have an even tougher time.

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