- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

There is not much love for the Washington Capitals, at least not at the national level.
The NHL and its national TV partners ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC yesterday announced the 2002-03 season schedule. The three networks will air fewer NHL games for the second straight year, less of Washington and again focus heavily on games involving Detroit, Colorado, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers.
ESPN and ESPN2 will combine to air 71 games, down from 102 last year and 128 two years ago. ABC will maintain its typical regular-season schedule of regional coverage during five late-season Saturday afternoons.
The Caps, after garnering three ESPN appearances and one slot on ABC last year, will appear on ESPN once and twice on the less-regarded ESPN2. The Avalanche and defending champion Red Wings will each appear on national TV 23 times. More than half the league, including defending Eastern Conference champion Carolina, will make four or fewer national appearances.
The reduction of coverage appears to run counter to long-stated goals of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has been instrumental in bringing national TV exposure to the league. But both the league and ESPN are now surprisingly embracing a "less is more" concept.
"In the middle of last season, we determined we'd reduce the number of games," said Mark Shapiro, ESPN senior vice president and general manager for programming. "That was our plan because at some point, ESPN is guilty of putting too many games of one sport on our network, which ultimately devalues the importance of the games, and turns them into wallpaper. We don't want to dilute the product."
ESPN hockey ratings fell 17 percent last year, and 8 percent on ESPN2.
Jon Litner, NHL chief operating officer, defended the 30 percent drop in national coverage from a year ago and 45 percent from two years ago. Playoff coverage will remain unchanged.
"These games aren't going away. They'll be aired on a local and regional level," Litner said. "In a fragmented [TV] universe, you need to put the best matchups out there. The fact remains that in all pro sports, the regular season appeals most to fans in the local market."
This season, ESPN will also debut coverage of the NBA, making it the first network to air games of all four major U.S. team sports at the same time. The NBA will be showcased on ESPN primarily on Wednesdays and Fridays, moving the NHL's key night on ESPN to Thursday. But ESPN officials insisted the addition of NBA coverage did not factor into deciding to reduce hockey coverage. ESPN and ESPN2 will air 76 NBA games, but because of a split national broadcast plan for much of the NHL coverage, basketball airtime will be far greater.
The Caps' TV schedule with local broadcast partner Comcast SportsNet is expected next month.
"Clearly, we'd prefer to be on national TV more, but we're pleased with the gains and the relationships we've made and developed with our local partners," said Declan Bolger, Caps senior vice president of business operations. "Obviously, we're pushing for that to continue."

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