ESPN doesn’t hate hockey, or so it claims

The question was direct.

“Why does ESPN hate hockey?” I asked Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice-president and director of news.

Doria tried to suppress a frustrated laugh. He protested, “We don’t hate hockey.”

Hockey fans, though, know ESPN definitely doesn’t love their sport. There’s a limited presence on SportsCenter since its networks no longer carry games. You won’t find the First Take guys talking much about the Phoenix Coyotes.

According to Deadspin’s Bristolmetrics, which tracks SportsCenter’s dedicated time to a particular sport, hockey accounted for 4.7 percent of its coverage from Jan. 7-April 26. The NBA, meanwhile, had 23.4 percent. Hockey couldn’t even beat “other,” which had 8.8. percent.

Now to be fair, ESPN has raised its hockey allotment during the playoffs. Last week, hockey rose to 15 percent. However, a big part of that might have been due to the New York Rangers winning their series in seven games. Nothing like an iconic New York team to get ESPN excited.

Doria admits ESPN won’t ever get too pumped up about hockey. In a recent Q/A with Doria, he explains why hockey doesn’t move the meter in Bristol.

Why does ESPN hate hockey?

Doria: We don’t hate hockey. When I worked in Boston (as sports editor of the Boston Globe), I probably went to more Bruins games than Celtics. There’s probably not a better in-the-house sport than hockey. Watching it live. My own personal feeling is that it never transferred well to television. I’m not exactly sure why that is.

Why does hockey get a limited presence on SportsCenter?

Doria: It’s a sport that engenders a very passionate local following. If you’re a Blackhawks fan in Chicago, you’re a hardcore fan. But it doesn’t translate to television, and where it really doesn’t transfer much to is a national discussion, which is something that typifies what we do.

Baseball fans are interested where Albert Pujols is going. NBA fans are interested in the Miami Heat. For whatever reason, and this is my unsubstantiated research on it, hockey doesn’t generate that same kind of interest nationwide. You look at national talk shows. Hockey rarely is a topic. People in Boston aren’t that interested with what’s going on with the Blackhawks.

Would it be different if you were a rights holder?

Doria: Well, we were at one time. It wasn’t that different. Listen, I guess if we were rights holder, there probably would be a little more attention paid to it. It’s typical that would happen. We might throw it to commentators who were inside the building. Now we’re not inside the building.

Even though ESPN doesn’t have hockey, you decided to keep Barry Melrose. Why?

Doria: When we lost it, we wanted to keep a hockey presence. We wanted to keep Barry, the best there is in my mind. But now the only place to put Barry is on SportsCenter. If you look at the first few years, after we lost hockey, Barry probably was on SportsCenter more after we lost it than when we had hockey.

Before, he would appear on NHL Tonight. Sometimes, we’d put him on SportsCenter. But there was no real demand to put him on SportsCenter. NHL Tonight was his job, and they’d do all the highlights.

NBC Sports Network has locked up hockey for a long time. What’s going to be ESPN’s approach to the sports going forward?

Doria: We’ll be out at the Stanley Cup. If you watch our show, we do highlights and report scores.

But if you go to our radio and television shows, there’s not a lot of hockey talk. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of yammer out there to give us hockey talk.