Sports Media Watch caught up with ESPN NHL analyst Barry Melrose on Tuesday. Topics of conversation included the Blackhawks/Flyers Stanley Cup Final, if the NHL needs ESPN to be successful and whether Melrose is the U.S. equivalent of Don Cherry.
SMW: How important is it for the NHL to have these two huge markets playing in Chicago and Philadelphia? How big do you think that is for the league right now?
Barry: It’s great, because when we lost Washington and Pittsburgh, everyone was saying doom and gloom, it’s going to be a terrible finals. Crosby’s out, Ovechkin’s out, no one will care. To get these two markets, these two great hockey franchises – an Original Six team like Chicago, Philadelphia Flyers one of the most famous franchises in the NHL – this is a home run for the NHL, almost a grand slam. We’re very, very fortunate that we’ve got these cities involved, but also, these two great teams involved.
SMW: Do you think this year’s final is going to do as well as the last couple of years with Detroit and Pittsburgh? Do you think it can actually do better?
Barry: I think it could do better. The Chicago market, and the way hockey is in Chicago right now is crazy. Philly is nuts too. I think the ratings in both those cities will be unbelievable, they’ll be through the roof. I think both these cities captivate a lot of the United States, so I think the ratings will be – I’ll be surprised if they’re not the highest we’ve had in a long, long time.
SMW: This year, Versus has already aired the most-viewed first round of the playoffs on cable since 2001 and the most-viewed second round on record. How would you characterize the NHL’s popularity as a whole right now?
Barry: It’s going up. The game is the best it’s been in a long, long time. We’ve got a lot of great young stars, every team seems to have a superstar, 23, 22, 21 years old. I think the sky’s the limit for the NHL. I think these playoffs have done wonders, and the finals will be everything we’ve hoped for. I expect a long, hard finals, so I think that’ll be great.
SMW: The NHL is pretty far behind the NBA and Major League Baseball on a national level. But if you look at some of these local markets – in Chicago, the Blackhawks this year beat the Bulls and the White Sox in regular season TV ratings. Those are the two most recent champions. In Philadelphia, you have the Flyers beating the 76ers pretty soundly each year. Do you think the NHL, on a national level, can mirror that success and start catching up to these other leagues in terms of national TV ratings?
Barry: Until the hockey contracts are different between the major sports, I think hockey has to realize that we are a more geographical sport. I think if you look at Detroit, the Red Wings are one or two in the city. If you look at Pittsburgh, they’re a solid two, their hockey numbers are spectacular – they’re beating even the Steelers. There’s other markets throughout the United States where the numbers are fantastic. I think we have to realize we are what we are. We’re not going to compete against football, we’re not going to compete against baseball in the United States. But I think if you look geographically, the hockey teams are doing unbelievable. And I think if you’re looking at the world stage, hockey’s doing unbelievable.
I know ESPN just started ESPN America, which is going to show American sports all over Europe. And hockey’s a driving sport on ESPN America. So it’s doing very, very well. I think you have to look at the big picture in hockey, and I think hockey’s doing very, very well. Ted Leonsis as a matter of fact came out the other day – Ted’s buying the Washington Wizards – and he said the NHL is in a lot better shape than the NBA financially. Here’s a guy that knows both leagues very, very, well – and for Ted to say that I think is a pretty good statement for the NHL.
SMW: You mentioned just now the TV contracts the NHL has with NBC and Versus. I think I mentioned earlier how Versus had the most-viewed first round and second round in a good number of years. A lot of people have said that the NHL needs to get back on ESPN. As an ESPN employee, do you think the NHL still needs ESPN, or do you think they can still be successful with the set-up they have now?
Barry: Well, I’m an ESPN employee, but I’m also a hockey lover. I want to see what’s the best for the NHL, for our game. Does hockey need ESPN to be successful? No. Does hockey need ESPN to become what it can become? I think it does. I think if you’re a national sport in the United States, you have to be on ESPN. I think it’s great for the sport.
People still come to ESPN for their sports. You can say what you want, we still do hockey every night. Yesterday, I did twelve things on hockey on all the platforms, starting at 9:00 in the morning with the early SportsCenter and ending at 1:00 in the morning on our late SportsCenter from Los Angeles. So we’re still doing a lot of hockey on ESPN, and people still come to ESPN for their news about hockey. I think for the betterment of the league and the optimum expansion of our sport, I think it needs to be back on ESPN.
SMW: When ESPN lost hockey in 2004, a lot of the ESPN NHL personalities, like Bill Clement and Darren Pang, went to the networks that acquired hockey – NBC and Versus. But you decided to stay with ESPN. What was your thought process behind staying with ESPN, even though they didn’t have any hockey games?
Barry: Number one, I love it here. I love the people here. I’ve been here a long time. I think I’m seen more in my less time on ESPN than if I was on the other networks. Like I said, when you’re doing SportsCenter every day, and you’re doing [ESPN] news every day, and you’re doing [ESPN].com every day, and you’re doing all the other things we do here – I just did First Take this morning – I think those are still the most watched sports shows in the United States by far.
I just think this is the greatest sports company in the world, and I’m always hoping against hope that we do get hockey back. Then it would be the perfect existence for me. But I love being at ESPN, and as I said, I think I’m watched more on ESPN than if I’m on any other network in the world.
SMW: Going off of that, being on ESPN provides you that great platform. A lot of sports fans who wouldn’t be watching Versus get to see you talking hockey every day on SportsCenter. There are some people who might say that you’re the most prominent hockey analyst in the states just by virtue of that platform. Maybe even like a Don Cherry of the United States. Would you agree with something like that?
Barry: Well, I’m a lot better looking and better dressed than Don Cherry. Gotta get that out there right away. But I would say so, yeah. If you look at the viewership for ESPN, non-hockey fans are watching SportsCenter. All of a sudden, this guy from Canada pops up, and they say, ‘this is the hockey guy.’ So I would definitely say that’s true. It’s something I take pride in, and something I work hard to cultivate, and something that I try to convey every night to people that aren’t hockey fans. So I try and entertain a little more than guys that are on hockey networks, but I think definitely that’s true that I’m the most watched hockey person in the United States. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
SMW: You look at the last couple of years, how well the Stanley Cup Final has done with Detroit and Pittsburgh and now you have these two huge markets. Then, you look at a couple of years before when you had Ottawa and Anaheim and Tampa Bay – and the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t even getting a million viewers on Versus.
Do you think it’s more important for the league, in terms of its overall health, to have these big, superstar markets and the big, superstar players playing in the Stanley Cup Final, or do you think it’s more important to have the parity and teams like the Oilers and Hurricanes making it?
Barry: It’s great for the league to have parity and have 7 seeds win, and have the Canadian teams win. But if you’re just a person that’s looking for what’s best in the NHL – and it’s the same as in the NBA. Remember when LeBron [James] was beat out a couple of weeks ago, they almost had a funeral in the NBA for LeBron being knocked out. So all sports want their stars and the faces of the league in their finals, and the major markets in the finals.
The NBA can say what they want, but they don’t want the Charlotte Bobcats playing Kansas City in the NBA Finals. They want L.A. against New York or they want L.A. against Boston. Same with the NHL. We would love to have Chicago against New York or have L.A. against Chicago, or have L.A. against New York or Philadelphia in the finals. That’s why I think this matchup is so great. We’ve got major markets, but we’ve also got great storylines and we’ve got great young stars. Probably next to Ovechkin and Crosby, this series has some of the most well-known NHL stars there are.
SMW: You mentioned LeBron James just now, and that got so much coverage. I was thinking the other day about how amazing it is that a team came back from 3-0 down in any sport and won, and it didn’t really seem to cause much of a blip on the national radar. Would you like to see a network like ESPN, even though they devote a lot of attention to hockey, give something like the Flyers’ comeback maybe more pop than LeBron James’ free agency decisions?
Barry: Without a doubt. We talk about that all the time here at ESPN. The funny part is, people outside think the people here at ESPN don’t like hockey. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The bosses here at ESPN are all hockey fans. Norby Williamson, his sons play youth hockey here in Connecticut. He loves hockey. So we talk about this all the time.
But ESPN, they own the other sports – they don’t own hockey – so that’s certainly going to sway them towards the sports they own, they’d be crazy not to. But we talk about that all the time, that we would like to have more hockey on the air and more hockey on SportsCenter. That’s been an argument we’ve had here at ESPN since I came here in 1993. We just have to keep putting up the good fight. When we get on the air, if it’s for less time, we’ve got to do a better job than the other sports. We’ve got to entertain more, we’ve got to inform more, with our less time on the air. And that’s what we’re fighting here in the United States.