With TV deal not done, NHL, fans left in cold again


September 27, 1991|By RAY FRAGER

NHL president John Ziegler has taken a bold stand. While most heads of professional sports leagues have bought into the thinking that national telecasts of their games are a good idea, Ziegler bucks the trend.

"Broadcasting is not a critical item to our business," Ziegler recently was quoted as saying.

That's the bold, innovative NHL for you -- coming out against television.

The NHL's 80-game season -- set up mainly to eliminate the San Jose Sharks from the playoffs -- begins Thursday, and the league doesn't have a national television contract in the United States. The three-year deal with SportsChannel America has expired, and the NHL is negotiating with SportsChannel and ESPN.

These talks are a brand-new ballgame -- puckgame? -- economically. When the NHL picked SCA three years ago, it chose less bang for more bucks. Though SCA reaches 15 million homes to ESPN's 60 million, SCA paid the league $17 million per season. If there is a new deal, the NHL reportedly will get $7 million per season.

Divided among the NHL's 22 clubs, that comes out to less than $320,000 per team -- barely enough to buy a couple of goons. Maybe that's why no one seems in too much of a hurry to get a television agreement.

But what of the hockey fans? Around here, it was bad enough over the past three seasons, when those who didn't pay for the premium channel Home Team Sports could see only Washington Capitals games on Channel 20. At least HTS viewers got additional Capitals games and the SCA package.

If ESPN doesn't get a piece of the NHL this season, area viewers will see even less hockey -- unless they want to buy a satellite dish. SCA's programming affiliation with HTS ends Tuesday, when HTS becomes an exclusive Prime Network affiliate. With the reported SportsChannel-Prime merger not yet a reality, that leaves HTS with no hockey other than the Capitals.

(As is usually the case, the non-cabled viewer is in even worse shape -- he has to depend upon the kindness of his UHF antenna in picking up Channel 20.)

Fans should be rooting for ESPN to return the NHL to basic cable. ESPN likely would be an entry with SCA, reportedly picking up some regular-season games starting in January and covering the playoffs. An apparent snag in the negotiations, though, is ESPN's desire not to be blacked out in league cities when televising home teams. With clubs receiving greater sums for local television rights than from a national package, this would not be a wise concession.

But it is in the NHL's best interest to get back on ESPN. A place on the network would mean not only that the sport would be seen by more people, but also that it would gain a greater visibility on "SportsCenter."

So, as the pucks are chilled for opening games, the television deal is on ice.

"I don't think anything is going to happen this week," SCA spokesman Dan Martinsen said.

"We're still talking," ESPN spokeswoman Diane Lamb said. "We have never said there is a deadline."

Actually, with ESPN probably holding off until January and SCA poised to start at the drop of a puck, it's not too late for a new contract.

"We could do it on a day's notice. We could tap into our regional networks," Martinsen said, referring to the SCA affiliates around the country that hold local NHL cable rights. "We're ready to go 150 games again."

At HTS, the word is: "We have no plans beyond 33 Capitals games," spokesman Scott Broyles said. "We're kind of keeping our fingers crossed."

And so begins another NHL season, with crossed fingers, crossed wires and maybe more than a few cross fans.

Today is the opening day of Ryder Cup competition, and USA Network is presenting (its words) "The Longest Day of Televised Golf in History." Beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m., USA will carry the matches from Kiawah Island, S.C. Look for lots of people calling in sick today to stay home and watch. USA comes back tomorrow at 8 a.m.-noon, then NBC has the Ryder Cup 2 p.m.-6 p.m. tomorrow and 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday. "NFL Live" will follow golf on Sunday, moving three hours to accommodate the event. . . . Johnny Holliday, in his 13th season on Maryland broadcasts, isn't the only radio announcer with longevity in calling college football in the state. Lamont Germany has been doing play-by-play on Morgan State's broadcasts (WEAA, 88.9 FM) for more than a decade, and Ted Patterson, moved to analyst this year with the addition of Steve Buchantz on play-by-play, is in his eighth season with Navy (heard locally on WYST, 1010 AM).

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