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TV's reaction to NHL: yawn
By JOHN C. COTEY
Published February 18, 2005
If the NHL was on thin ice with broadcast partners before, the league might be soaking wet when/if it resumes play in the fall.
Coming off a year in which the television ratings were abysmal and the league had to take a 50 percent rights-fee cut from ESPN and settle for a revenue-sharing deal with NBC without a juicy rights fee, the NHL might have to pay local cable access channels to air its games.
Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but considering harsh comments from ESPN's executive vice president, Mark Shapiro, and some ho-humming from NBC, the game in its present form will be a tough sell when/if it is resuscitated.
"We're taking a wait-and-see approach," Shapiro said Wednesday. "However, any time you cede real estate or currency with the fans or a business partner, it's a dangerous strategy. Ultimately, others come to fill the void. And God forbid (for the league) we find something successful that takes the place of hockey."
The NHL may be blind to this, but here's a news alert: ESPN and NBC don't need hockey for ratings. Replacement programming, including college basketball and poker reruns, is doubling the 0.2 ratings that hockey on ESPN2 averaged last season.
On ESPN, the new poker series Tilt has much better ratings (1.1 to 0.7) than Thursday Night Hockey did. And on NBC, any combination of skateboarding events, dog shows and figure skating are posting better numbers than hockey did on ABC last season.
Take a guess how many of these are cheaper to produce. (Hint: all of them.)
In Tampa Bay, hockey ratings were awful and suggest the sport will not be missed, even if the Lightning is. But bigger losers are regional networks, such as Fox Sports Net, which carries thousands of games to local markets, and Sun Sports (formerly Sunshine), which carries the Lightning.
Last season's Stanley Cup run gave Sun Sports its best ratings ever. It plunked down some extra money to enhance coverage this season and expected to reap the benefits of additional revenue from advertisers eager to reach a quickly expanding audience.
Even Shapiro couldn't resist invoking the name of Wally Pipp, the New York Yankees first baseman who took a day off and was replaced for the next 2,130 games by a guy named Lou Gehrig.
ESPN already had talked the NHL down from $120-million to $60-million for 40 regular-season games and the playoffs (with options on the next three years). That was before the players and owners killed the sport in many U.S. cities Wednesday, as well as alienating fans in hockey hotbeds such as Detroit and Philadelphia.
Chances are ESPN will try to talk the price down even more, refusing to pay $60-million for the same flawed product with the extra baggage.
"The NHL has to come back a better on-ice product," Shapiro said, meaning in all likelihood rules that will increase the scoring and various other concessions be granted to enhance the broadcast production.
The NHL's two-year deal with NBC - 13 regular-season and playoff games on Saturdays, the last five Stanley Cup final games - is probably safe, only because it's a low-risk venture. But it is a revenue-sharing deal, and one has to wonder how much revenue hockey can generate as sports business analysts are painting a bleak outlook.
NBC has said it will replace most hours designated for hockey but is returning 10 of them to its affiliates for local coverage.
If NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow think they can take a year off and come back just as baseball and football did from work stoppages, they are mistaken. The thin ice has broken, the NHL has fallen in and the chilly reaction from Shapiro and others might just freeze the water before the league comes up for air.
"What next year?" Shapiro said. "As far as we're concerned, they're on lockout. At this point, we have to make other plans."