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KHL, ESPN Agree to US Broadcast Deal for 2012-13 Season with NHL Lockout Implications

Russia's Kontinental Hockey League has reached a deal to broadcast games from its 2012-13 on ESPN's digital platform, bringing KHL games to the States. Will it put pressure on the NHL to strike a labor deal?

Martin Rose - Bongarts/Getty Images

Shrewd business practice has prevailed in at least one chapter of the NHL lockout.

Russia's KHL has signed a North American broadcast agreement with ESPN3, ESPN's streaming digital network, for the 2012-13 season. The deal will feature a number of NHL players, including Russian stars Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin, who have gone to Europe in the absence of NHL hockey.

It also means the world's second-largest professional hockey league will have games available in North American markets at a time when the NHL can't compete.

Puck Daddy's Dmitry Chesnokov reported the news early Tuesday morning, and the KHL website offered this press release,

The Kontinental Hockey League has reached an agreement with the US sports TV channel ESPN to broadcast games in the 2012/2013 KHL Championship. The games will be shown on the ESPN3 channel in the United States, Territories of the United States, and also in Great Britain.

ESPN3 reaches 73 million American households and devotes most of its output to live broadcasts of events, including college football, college basketball, the NBA, MLB, ICC (International Cricket Council) competitions and qualifying matches of FIFA tournaments.

Broadcasts will begin Wednesday, October 3 and the preliminary schedule includes three Dynamo Moscow matches between October 3 and 9—Dynamo Moscow being Alex Ovechkin's adopted lockout club.

The significance of the deal is not that ESPN will suddenly begin granting hockey the kind of coverage its other properties enjoy, or that the KHL will be able to replace NHL numbers in the States. What's significant is that another professional hockey league is making inroads into NHL territory.

The NHL has a monopoly on talent and television in the two richest hockey economies in the world in the United States and Canada. That they've locked out for the fourth time in 21 years is as much a credit to their spectacular inability to run a business as it is the certainty that no rival league will step in and eat their lunch during a holdout.

The KHL is a fledgling league with no North American foothold and plenty of its own problems, but competition is competition.

And like any good business, the NHL responds to its competition, not its customers.

Even though the broadcast rights only go as far as ESPN's digital platform, the KHL isn't exactly being relegated to the upper hundreds of the cable listings (like, say, NBC Sports Network). ESPN3 is digital-only, but that platform has grown immensely with the advent of smartphones, tablets and on-demand television services.

Fans will be able to find these games.

It's a small stumbling block in terms of how long NHL owners will dig in for this lockout. Certainly, getting back a season's worth of salary in addition to the inevitable concessions of a relatively powerless players union will save many more millions than the KHL will generate this decade.

But progress is progress. Even if it comes from every party but the two which need to find progress the most.