Sunday, September 5, 2004

First came hope that NHL owners and players would find a way to end their bitter labor war. Then concern followed as weeks and months passed without any negotiating progress.

Now a desperate bunker mentality is fully engaged as dozens of related parties from building owners and concessionaires to marketers and team executives are planning for a lockout that could swallow the entire 2004-05 season.

Television networks airing NHL games are no different and arguably face an even more difficult job than most, juggling the complex logistics of finding new programming and allocating personnel and equipment accordingly on short notice. As a result, the lockout contingency plans vary widely from network to network and are evolving by the day as the Sept.15 expiration for the current labor deal approaches.

ESPN, which this summer designed a significant repackaging of its NHL coverage on ESPN2, will rely heavily on college basketball to fill the void, as well as shows from its Original Entertainment division. Comcast SportsNet, the local rights holder for the Washington Capitals, will air every preseason game for the NBA’s Washington Wizards and is in negotiations to add programming for the fall and winter. Fox Sports Net will undoubtedly lean even more on “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.” TSN in Canada is planning to dip into its archives for classic games. College and minor league hockey might make appearances on some regional outlets.

Players and owners remain angrily divided on the fiscal future of the sport, and dozens of hours of negotiations in recent weeks have produced absolutely no tangible progress.

“I think what’s happening is incredibly sad,” said Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president. “I don’t see them starting on time. I see the recharge [of the NHL on ESPN2] delayed, which is very irritating. I don’t like having a dominant property on ESPN2 on the sideline for a few months. That doesn’t make sense and doesn’t sound good.”

NBC, which in May signed a somewhat unusual deal with the NHL that included no up-front rights fees, has the luxury of additional time because it plans to air no games until January. And if there still is no hockey by that point or soon thereafter, it is quite possible the NHL will cancel the rest of the season.

But for the others, the grim reality is now. Comcast SportsNet has yet to release broadcast schedules for the Wizards or Caps, slates that are usually complete by late July or early August. Nor has ESPN distributed its hockey schedule.

“For now, we’re proceeding on business as usual as much as possible,” said Sam Schroeder, CSN general manager. “We’re just hoping to put out something that includes the Caps.”

It must be noted that much of the replacement programming likely will outdraw what the NHL would have, particularly with hockey ratings sliding sharply in recent years. Shapiro last week joked that he could air more poker matches if he needed to, something else with a burgeoning if puzzling level of viewer affinity.

The monetary impact to the TV networks also promises to be small because rights fees are typically paid incrementally and, in the event of a work stoppage, are either not due during the layoff or are rebated later. Advertisers already committed to NHL games will generally have the option to air spots on similarly rated programming.

But the NHL retains a passionate core of fans, particularly in the Northeast, and draws young, affluent demographics attractive to TV networks and their sponsors. And though the NHL says not playing via lockout will result in fewer financial losses than continuing the current labor deal, network executives agree that seeing the sport go dark does them little good.

“Getting the two sides to see each other’s views and getting this season going, I think, is good for the fans,” Shapiro said. “It’s certainly good, ultimately, for the NHL’s growth. The problem is, there’s no panacea here, and I’m not optimistic about this thing getting resolved anytime soon.”

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