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Savran: NHL, networks foul TV waters

Saturday, May 12, 2001

All together now: "Heeeeeeeeeeeeee shoots and scores!" And then he goes away for the rest of the playoffs. Even though the Penguins have managed to dispatch the Buffalo Sabres, you won't be able to "Buy Sam a drink" until next fall. That's because the National Hockey League allows local television outlets to serve the appetizers but anoints the network to have the entree all to themselves.

Now, I'm not writing this column for Mike Lange's benefit. He will work the remainder of the playoffs on the Penguins' radio network. And even though you might suspect a tinge of bias since I'm gainfully employed by Fox Sports Pittsburgh, the aggrieved party in the matter, my opinions on this issue are not conflicted by personal or professional motivation. Rather, they're grounded in two contentions: What the NHL is doing is wrong. And counterproductive to its objectives.

Background: Local broadcasters pay millions of dollars to teams (the Penguins receive about $10 million per year from FSP) for the right to televise healthy portions of the regular season. That's significantly more than their slice of the network television pie. But come playoff time, the locals are hip-checked into the boards.

In the first round, jointly owned ABC/ESPN are allowed to broadcast two games exclusively out of the potential seven. In the second series, it's expanded to three. But two of the potential four for the locals were Games 6 and 7, which might never have been played. Then, even if the team they fortified with money moves on, the local TV season ends. Because every game in the final two rounds is a network exclusive. Even though the Penguins have advanced, Fox Sports Pittsburgh does not.

This isn't only the case here, but in St. Louis, Colorado and New Jersey, wherever playoff hockey is alive. Fox Sports televises that Tuesday game in January against Atlanta that nobody cares about, including many of the players. But when it matters most and ratings soar, and they have a chance to recoup some rights fees, the NHL contract makes them a healthy scratch.

But this isn't about right and wrong. It's not about your preference for local announcers. It's not about fair. It's nothing personal. It's strictly business. With the network's tentacles reaching further into the local broadcasters' playoff domain, how long will these outlets pay double-digit millions for the regular season, only to be shut down when the hockey matters most?

Ratings for playoff games in Western Pennsylvania generally increase about 50 percent, which allows advertising sales to increase as well. Each playoff telecast generates approximately $100,000 in gross revenue for FSP. But you can't sell commercials for games you can't broadcast.

This is why it's bad business and shortsighted for the league: While local ratings for the playoffs are outstanding, regularly topping entertainment programming on the networks, ratings for national telecasts of the Stanley Cup playoffs, in a word, stink. The evidence suggests that's not about to change.

The NHL must come to grips with the reality that this is a regional game. Though wildly popular in franchise areas, it's never been able to play the game of national connect the dots. The folks in Albuquerque, N.M., and Des Moines, Iowa, just don't care.

The ratings disprove the notion that you need network telecasts to "grow" the game. This isn't to suggest that national TV contracts aren't necessary. But, when the creeping hand of network exclusivity devours the local guys, the less financially viable their investment becomes. Regional sports networks need the programming hours, but if they can't recover some costs with playoff revenue, they'll be less inclined to fork over the money essential for franchise solvency.

Compromise is necessary, and possible. In the first three rounds, allow ABC to maintain exclusive rights to weekend games if it's the national telecast. If it's only being sent to selected markets as a backup, the local guys should be allowed to carry the game. And for the perceived prestige, give ABC all prime-time games in the Cup final. But the two local broadcasters in a series should be able to televise all other games involving their team.

Perhaps they could limit their coverage area as part of the compromise. For instance, cable companies outside the immediate six-county area of Pittsburgh would be forced to take the ESPN show instead of the Mike and Edzo show. But whenever possible, the local rights-holder should show the most important games of the year.

After years of compilation, the evidence is irrefutable: NHL hockey is never going to sell nationwide. If national ratings are down even with Mario Lemieux's comeback, when will they have a better story to tell? It's best to make sure regional support is vibrant and growing. There's room for both, but local television outlets are much more important to the league than a single network ever will be.

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat, weeknights at 6:30 on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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