Drawing in the Seattle marketplace — and its $650 million franchise fee — was a big deal for the National Hockey League, in fourth place in the busy race for North American pro-sports-league dollars. The December 2018 award reaches a milestone at 7 p.m. Tuesday as the Seattle Kraken, the 32nd team, takes the ice in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights, the 31st team, as part of a nationally televised doubleheader on . . . ESPN.
That may seem ordinary to most sports fans. But the NHL has been off the media colossus since its previous deal expired in 2004. That was a time so long ago that the primitive people had no smartphones nor Facebook, and streams were only those filled with water.
If the sport was going to grow in a hyper-competitive market, it had to get with the times. The NHL needed more American markets and more ways to reach fans.
A big step was taken in 2017 when the NHL, for the first time since 2000, expanded. It became the first major league to put a team in Las Vegas, ignoring the traditional sports industry’s hypocritical shudders over legal gambling. Then it expanded to Seattle, where a long-running arena problem was solved by a borderline preposterous proposal to remake an old building by digging a deeper hole.
Then in March came a business breakthrough — a seven-year, $2.8 billion multi-platform deal with ESPN’s owner, The Disney Co. A month later, the league landed a seven-year, $1.57 billion secondary rights deal with Turner Sports.
The ESPN deal includes Tuesday’s season-opening TV doubleheader (Pittsburgh at defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay opens the show) that is the first of 25 regular-season games on ESPN or ABC. Also booked is an early-round playoff series and one conference final each year, four Stanley Cup Finals series on ABC, and more than 1,000 games per season streaming on ESPN+. Between ESPN+ and Hulu, there will be 75 ESPN-produced exclusive telecasts per season.
Expansion of markets and platforms. Check and check.
Said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at the time of the ESPN deal: “Not only will this groundbreaking, seven-year deal enable the NHL to benefit from the incomparable power, reach and influence of The Walt Disney Company and ABC/ESPN, it sets a new standard in delivering our game to the most passionate and tech-savvy fans in sports in the ways they now demand and on the platforms they use.”
Mark Giordano, the 38-year-old veteran who spent 15 seasons with the Calgary Flames, the final eight as captain, was named Kraken captain Monday. He was asked for a veteran’s take on the significance of the media deals.
“Extremely important,” he said. “Great job by the league for us to get that exposure. It’s gonna go a long way with growing the game. That’s what it’s about. (The NHL) coming to Seattle as well. You see the community, how excited they are about it. I have a son who’s in the minor hockey system down here, and you see how it’s growing so quickly.”
The potential prosperity augurs well for the sport, even in Seattle. The Kraken broke the NHL record for a new jersey’s first five days, selling nearly $1 million worth of merchandise.
If only the team was so well situated for the Tuesday spotlight.
Hours before the team plane left for Las Vegas Monday, coach Dave Hakstol told reporters on video conference that five players were in the COVID-19 protocol: Regulars Calle Jarnkrok, Jamie Oleksiak, Marcus Johansson, Jared McCann and Joonas Donskoi.
The club confirmed that one player who would miss the game was Donskoi, who entered the protocol Friday,. Unclear was the status of the others, including whether they were symptomatic. The other four practiced Sunday.
Hakstol spoke in vague terms.
“Things happen quickly and sometimes at inopportune times,” he said. “There’s different challenges that you go throughout the course of the season. This is one of them for us early on.”
It couldn’t get much more inopportune than the eve of the first regular-season game in franchise history. The first season by expansion teams is by definition chaotic, throwing together a coaching and scouting staff from around the league and players from around the world. The 23-man Seattle roster has representatives from Canada, Finland, Sweden and Germany — and three Americans.
Additionally, the franchise opened only last month the Kraken Community Iceplex, which houses three sheets of practice ice and the team headquarters, so finding the bathrooms and the coffee pot have been on the to-do list. Also, the team is forced to open the season with five consecutive games on the road because the remade Coliseum/KeyArena, now the $1 billion Climate Pledge Arena, isn’t ready for the home opener with Vancouver any sooner than Oct. 23.
Throw in the constraints of managing covid, a vexation for all sports, and the level of exasperation around the franchise has lit the lamp.
The perils of expansionism don’t seem to have put a dent in Giordano.
“We’re blessed to be a part of something special,” he said. “Not many guys have this opportunity in their careers, obviously, with a new franchise and Game 1. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere in Vegas — it always is. I’m excited to be a part of that game.”
The national TV audience, as well as the locals, should be alerted that Tuesday, and for awhile, the hockey will be untidy. Feel free to tune in for the weird nickname and cool sweaters until the Kraken reach the Stanley Cup finals.