The NHL, returning from a season lost to a lockout, needed a cable TV outlet that would give it star billing instead of the bit-player status it had received at ESPN.
OLN, known as a hunting-and-fishing haven during the lulls between Lance Armstrong's Tour de France triumphs, wanted to change its image from a quaint and quirky sportsman's paradise to a home for testosterone-fueled competitive sports.
And so was born an unlikely partnership between the NHL, desperate to grab a chunk of a fragmented TV audience, and OLN, known as the Outdoor Life Network when it was known at all beyond its narrowly focused, heavily male audience. So far, their alliance has had some on-air missteps and is producing feeble ratings, but neither side is measuring success by conventional standards.
Their convergence, sealed in August with a deal that's worth $135 million over two years and could last three or six years depending on a variety of options, occurred at a pivotal time in their history.
Plagued by weak TV ratings and an unappealing, defense-oriented game, the NHL had been forced to accept a profit-sharing deal for over-the-air telecasts on NBC. When ESPN declined to pick up a $60-million option for this season but suggested it might consider a profit-sharing model -- and then declined to match OLN's offer -- the NHL took its puck home.
League executives said they felt insulted by ESPN, which had used hockey to establish its legitimacy. They wanted ESPN's cachet but wouldn't grovel for it. Their cable package "was probably undervalued before that, and we were not prepared for further undervaluing of the product," said Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner.
Enter OLN, owned by cable giant Comcast, which owns a two-thirds stake of the Philadelphia Flyers. Under Gavin Harvey, a UCLA business school graduate who had a marketing background and became OLN's president in March 2004, the network had moved away from its outdoorsy roots by adding the Dakar Rally, Iditarod, America's Cup yacht race, Boston marathon and reruns of CBS' "Survivor" series.
"Our mission at that point was to start to expand the middle," Harvey said. "To get people to watch as destination, people who don't know the difference between carbon fiber and titanium as a benefit to your bike or couldn't argue entomology for fly-fishing.
"We need more men, for more minutes, more often. And they don't have to be hikers or bikers or campers or hunters. They just have to be guys. Who are the guys watching the NFC championship? Because it's a big event? I want those guys watching our programming."
The NHL gets in on the beginning of a dream, much as it did on ESPN. OLN, which plans another name change next year to reflect its wider aim, gets to piggyback on the NHL's history and mainstream status while still giving its core fans mano-a-mano battles. Instead of man vs. beast, as in its Professional Bull Riders events, or man against the sea, it's shooter against goalie.
"The evolution of OLN was a big part of what we talked about," Daly said. "The most important part was they were prepared to make us a priority, which I think they've done."
Harvey declined to say whether OLN will use the NHL as a foothold to pursue TV rights of other sports leagues, but that's not farfetched.
"We have never said that we want to take on ESPN because ESPN is a great channel. It's an institution," he said. "It's simply that we've been trying to make this channel better. Our distributors have asked for it, our advertisers have asked for it. Viewers are responding to it."
Perhaps so. But not in huge numbers. And the NHL is discovering that being a big fish in a small pond has its drawbacks.
OLN reaches 63 million homes; ESPN goes to 90 million and ESPN2 to 89 million. In addition, OLN was dropped by Cablevision for several weeks at the start of the hockey season, eliminating about 3 million homes, and OLN remains off EchoStar's Dish network because of a dispute over EchoStar's placement of OLN on a higher-priced channel package. OLN pulled its NHL telecasts because that channel isn't seen by 40% of the system's viewers, the minimum set by OLN for providing games.
OLN is delighted with its internal viewer measurements. Compared to a year ago in the same time periods, it has more than doubled impressions among its target groups of men 18 to 34, men 18 to 49 and men 25 to 54. Overall numbers, though, are small. Its first NHL telecast drew a 0.4 rating and 353,439 households and didn't return to that level until Nov. 16. Through the same period of the 2003-04 season, ESPN averaged a 0.5 rating and 476,384 households, and ESPN2 averaged a 0.2 rating and 196,000 homes.