Last Thursday, The New York Times ran a front-page story detailing the economic toll that the National Hockey League player lockout is taking on businesses connected to the game. A bar next to the Buffalo Sabres’ rink is down on its luck, parking lots near Detroit’s arena are empty, etc.
One business that might not be exactly pining for the three-month-old lockout to end: ESPN.
The NHL has suffered many indignities over the past decade as its limited appeal in the U.S. is demonstrated over and over again, but this may be the unkindest cut of all: ESPN gets better ratings with its replacement programming on Wednesdays, its hockey-free hockey night, than it got last year with actual NHL competition. And not just a little better—we’re talking twice as good, from a 0.2 to a 0.4.
“We hope that both sides will soon resolve their issues, and we look forward to televising NHL action this season,” says ESPN spokeswoman Catherine Sloane Brett. “In the interim, we are pleased with how our replacement programming is doing, especially the World Series of Poker and college basketball.”
ESPN is contracted to show NHL games if this season finally gets under way (the players made big concessions last week, so that may yet happen). The sports channel has an option for two more seasons, but you almost hear someone deep inside ESPN parent company Disney comparing the numbers for poker vs. hockey and wondering if it isn’t time to call the NHL’s bluff.