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NHL, Doing as Expected, Shuts Down

9/19/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

The long-expected National Hockey League shutdown became reality last week, as training camps were closed and the 2004-05 season imperiled.

With ownership and the National Hockey League Players Association deeply entrenched in their positions over salaries, national carrier ESPN and regional sports networks will be forced to scramble their schedules in the months ahead.

At press time, there were no plans for the parties to return to the negotiating table. The NHL wants to tie salaries to over 50% of league revenue — a ratio ownership said would yield an average salary of $1.3 million. The NHLPA construes such links as a salary cap.

$1.8B IN LOSSES

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, during a Webcast of a New York press conference last Wednesday to disclose that the league’s board of governors approved a lockout, said clubs had lost $1.8 billion over the past 10 years — and almost $500 million over the past two seasons — under the current collective bargaining agreement that expired Sept. 15.

Over the past decade, the league said the average player salary had risen to $1.8 million, with 75% of revenue allotted to player costs. Bettman said 20 of the league’s 30 clubs were in the red last season.

One of the key funding issues for the low-rated NHL is national TV contracts. NBC’s new no-rights deal calls for the sharing of ad dollars after it recovers its production costs.

Sources said ESPN’s one-year renewal pact with the NHL is in the $50 million to $60 million range, about half of what the league derived on an annual basis during the five-year pact that expired with the end of the 2003-04 season.

These numbers pale by comparison to the payoffs the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball receive from their national carriers.

An immediate icing of the start of the season affects ESPN2, which planned to initiate its 40-game regular-season slate with the Oct. 13 game between the Philadelphia Flyers and defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m.

ESPN vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro told the press at a recent symposium commemorating the channel’s 25th anniversary that the gaps could be filled with additional college football and basketball games, National Basketball Association preseason games, ESPN Original Entertainment fare and poker programming.

In a recent interview, president Bob Thompson said FSN owned and affiliated regional sports services would air additional runs of Best Damn Sports Show Period, encores of previously played NHL contests and more NBA games.

A Fox Sports spokesman confirmed those plans last week. Other possibilities could include making college hockey games already scheduled on some of the regional networks available to more of the services and possibly acquiring minor-league contests, should the work stoppage last a long time.

NBC, succeeding ABC as the league’s broadcast carrier, won’t be hit immediately, as its limited regular-season slate is not scheduled to begin until Jan. 8.

'CLASSIC’ GAMES COMING

With the work stoppage, Altitude Sports and Entertainment Network, the startup regional service based in Denver that went on the air Sept. 4, will miss one of its programming lynchpins: live Colorado Avalanche cablecasts.

Altitude senior vice president of marketing Tom Philand said Altitude plans to present up to a dozen “classic” Avs games, more coverage of the Colorado Eagles minor league franchise, and has added the Utah Grizzlies minor league club to its lineup to sate subscribers.

Altitude will also turn to ESPN for syndicated regional college basketball and football fare, among other alternative programming.

Philand said Altitude would attempt to juggle programming decisions on a 30-day rolling basis, the time period he said the NHL said would be needed to get the season underway following a contract resolution.

September