The National Hockey League needs crossover appeal, and with its new media rights partnership with Turner Sports, now is the perfect time to add Charles Barkley to its coverage.
The NHL and Turner’s parent company, WarnerMedia, agreed in April a rights pact for more than $1 billion, under which Turner will broadcast three Stanley Cups and the Winter Classic. Turner wasted no time adding broadcast talent, and hockey landed on Wednesday legend Wayne Gretzky.
The decision to add Gretzky is a good move, especially if Turner hopes to have a Tony Romo-esque impact on his coverage. And who better to break down hockey than “The Great One?”
But Turner’s coverage isn’t just about explaining the dynamics of an NHL game. It’s about entertainment and growing the NHL beyond its traditional fan base. Barkley can help with that growth.
In sports circles there is talk TNT president Lenny Daniels is urged to consider the move, and he should. This is why.
On Tuesday, Gretzky, 60, left a executive role with the Edmonton Oilers and will now try to reinvent himself in the same way that Barkley did in 2000 when he appeared on Turner’s “Inside the NBA” show.
In an interview with the Associated PressGretzky said the “stars aligned” as they discussed the move to Turner Sports as he will be closer to family, which is a bonus. “And I can do what I like to do, which is talk about hockey,” he added.
There is no doubt that Gretzky is a… phenomenon on the ice. He is the all-time leader in total points, goals scored and assists. He won the Hart Memorial Trophy nine times, making 18 NHL All-Star appearances and winning four Stanley Cup trophies. Respected sports media consultant Lee Berke said Gretzky’s Turner Sports addition is like hockey’s Babe Ruth popping up.
“There’s no one better offensively, and he has a great name that appeals to people — and casual fans know Wayne Gretzky,” said Berke, the CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment and Media. “The question is, no matter how good a reputation is, how will that person fare as an analyst?”
“He will have to prove himself again,” Berke added. “And they (Turner Sports) will have to give him time. But in terms of getting attention, building momentum, it’s a good move.”
Again, if he matches Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned CBS Sports star, it’s a success. But remember, ESPN tried to transform another Cowboys great, Jason Witten, for a similar role, and that didn’t go so well.
This is where Barkley can help with Gretzky’s transition. After all, he is credited with helping Gretzky land to Turner’s NHL crew. Barkley is authentic and has a great TV personality. Viewers listen in, whether they agree with his perspective or not.
And Barkley is a sports fan. Outside of the NBA, he does studio work for Turner and CBS’s NCAA basketball coverage and covers golf events. He is also a hockey fan so he is familiar with the sport.
“He’s iconoclastic, quirky — his opinions are thoughtful, funny and smart,” Berke said, referring to Barkley’s brief appearance on NBC Sports’ NHL coverage while attending a Stanley Cup Match in 2019.
“He was only on for five or six minutes and he was great,” Berke added. “I think he would be a great asset and have a great perspective to offer.”
Speculation about Barkley’s addition to NHL coverage isn’t new. A few media, including: Illustrated Sports, mentioned the idea after Turner won NHL rights. But the network will have to differentiate itself from ESPN to bring in a new audience.
The Disney network will bring pro hockey back to its lineup for the first time since 2004, paying a total of about $400 million for the package, which includes streaming. Berke said ESPN will continue to use NHL analyst Barry Melrose for its coverage and, more than likely, take a “professional” approach to the way it presents hockey games.
Turner can explore a little more, however, as the network does with the NBA. Berke credited Turner’s move to add legendary pitcher Pedro Martinez to his Major League Baseball coverage in 2013.
“It’s one of the great things about Turner,” Berke said. “They’re coming up with a way to promote sports. They’re doing a spectacular job with the NBA. They come up with their own flair and commentary that gives a different perspective.”
When asked how Daniels would go about building an NHL audience, Berke, who has known the sports manager for years, replied: “I think he will want to come up with his distinctive approach.”
“You already have a core audience that wants to see these games,” he added. “So you’re not going to reinvent everything. You’re going to have to develop credibility, and certainly Kenny AlbertWayne Gretzky develops credibility. But you also want to develop your own style for it.”
And what better way to do that than with a voice like Sir Charles?
Barkley doesn’t need to learn the game. He just has to make it fun for casual fans. Turner may add a Barkley hockey camera from time to time or get a sponsored segment with Barkley’s insight. Anything, anything, but find a way to get him involved.
The challenges are there, especially as the NBA and NHL seasons overlap. But there are also opportunities to make it work, like the Winter Classic or those Stanley Cup showings.
“Add Barkley, add Gretzky — think of more stars and display it in a way that makes it yours,” Berke said. “I hope they can pull it off. He (Barkley) adds interest and viewers to everything he’s involved in.”