Sports

Turner Sports needs to grow its NHL audience — Charles Barkley is the key

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Key Points
  • Turner Sports will give the NHL $1 billion over the next seven years. It's betting it can grow the sports property, which needs crossover appeal.
  • The National Hockey League needs crossover appeal, and with its new media rights partnership with Turner Sports, it's the perfect time to add Charles Barkley to its coverage.

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Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA
Source: NBA on TNT

The National Hockey League needs crossover appeal, and with its new media rights partnership with Turner Sports, it's the perfect time to add Charles Barkley to its coverage.

The NHL and Turner's parent company WarnerMedia agreed to a rights pact for more than $1 billion in April, under which Turner will air three Stanley Cups and the Winter Classic. Turner wasted no time adding to broadcasting talent, and on Wednesday, landed hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

The decision to add Gretzky is a good move, especially if Turner hopes to get a Tony Romo-like impact to its coverage. And who better to break down hockey than "The Great One?"

But Turner's coverage isn't about just explaining the dynamics of an NHL contest. It's about entertainment and growing the NHL outside of its traditional fanbase. Barkley can help with that growth.

In sports business circles, there's chatter TNT president Lenny Daniels is being urged to consider the move, and he should. Here's why.

The Babe Ruth of the NHL

On Tuesday, Gretzky, 60, vacated an executive role with the Edmonton Oilers and will now attempt to reinvent himself the same way Barkley did in 2000 when he joined Turner's "Inside the NBA" show.  

In an interview with the Associated Press, Gretzky said the "stars were aligned" while discussing the move to Turner Sports since he'll be closer to family, which is a bonus. "And I get to do what I love to do, which is talk about hockey," he added.

There's no doubt Gretzky was a phenom on the ice. He's 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 won four Stanley Cup trophies. Respected sports media adviser Lee Berke said Gretzky's Turner Sports addition is like the Babe Ruth of hockey showing up.

"There is nobody better offensively, and he's got a terrific name that appeals to people – and casual fans know Wayne Gretzky," said Berke, the CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment and Media. "The question is: As good as a reputation is, how will that person do as an analyst?"

"He's going to have to prove himself all over again," Berke added. "And they're (Turner Sports) going to have to give him time. But in terms of attracting attention, building momentum, it's a good move."

Jamie Redmond interviews Wayne Gretzky before Game Four of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center on June 03, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri.
David Flotte | NHL Images | National Hockey League | Getty Images

Again, if he emulates 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 work out as well.

It's here Barkley can help with Gretzky's transition. After all, he's credited with helping land Gretzky to Turner's NHL crew. Barkley is authentic and has a great TV personality. Viewers tune 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' NCAA men's basketball coverage and chimes in on golf events. He's also a hockey fan, so he's familiar with the sport.

"He's iconoclastic, opinioned – his opinions are thought out, funny and clever," said Berke, mentioning Barkley's short appearance on NBC Sports' NHL coverage while attending a Stanley Cup game in 2019.

"He was only on about five or six minutes, and he was terrific," Berke added. "I think he would be a tremendous addition and has a great perspective to offer up."

NHL on Turner needs to be different 

Speculation about Barkley's addition for NHL coverage isn't new. A few media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, mentioned the idea after Turner captured NHL rights. But the network will need to differentiate from ESPN to bring in a new audience.

The Disney-owned network will return pro hockey to its lineup for the first time since 2004, paying about $400 million total for the package, which includes streaming. Berke said ESPN will continue to feature NHL analyst Barry Melrose for its coverage and, more than likely, take a "professional" approach in the way it presents hockey games.

Turner can explore a bit more, though, as the network does with the NBA. Berke credited Turner's move to add legendary pitcher Pedro Martinez to its Major League Baseball coverage in 2013.

"It's one of the great things about Turner," Berke said. "They come up with a way of showcasing sports. They do a spectacular job with the NBA. They come up with their own flair and commentary that gives a different perspective."

Asked how Daniels would approach building an NHL audience, Berke, who has known the sports executive for years, responded: "I think he's going to 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 from scratch. You'll need to develop credibility, and certainly Kenny Albert, Wayne Gretzky develop 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 teach the game. He just needs to make it entertaining for casual fans. Turner could add a Barkley hockey cam or get a sponsored segment with Barkley's insight from time to time. Something, anything, but find a way to include him.  

The challenges are there, especially since 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 – come up with more stars and showcase in a way that makes it yours," said Berke. "I hope they can pull it off. He (Barkley) adds interest and viewers to anything he gets involved in."

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