Making dollars and sense

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

American television has officially slammed the door -- not to mention the vault -- in the NHL's face.

But there's still a rather wide window of opportunity for the league to resurrect its image in the land where passion for the puck game runs deeper than perhaps anywhere else.

The NHL saw its last pipeline of guaranteed U.S. television cash run dry this week, when ESPN announced it was ending negotiations with the league. The cable giant had an option to fork over $60 million US for NHL television rights in 2005-06, but decided that's too rich a price to pay for a product which has seen its value nosedive because of a season-killing lockout.

Despite all that, the NHL, in a remarkable display of gall, expected ESPN to simply sign over the same cheque it promised before this labour mess poisoned the league's business.

Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive VP of programming and production, said in a conference call he considers the NHL's rights now worth "well below half" of that $60 million. Truth be told, he'd rather get into the same type of revenue-sharing arrangement NBC signed with the NHL.

Can you really blame them?

If you're ESPN, why put up the waiting game again? Why cross your fingers and hope this all gets settled by the end of the month, then have to rebuild the image of a sport that rates below bowling and rodeo in American eyes?

"Last-minute schedule changing is a nightmare," said TSN president Phil King. "If you have a choice, you're not going to do it.

"ESPN had a choice."

It also knows that things like college basketball can fill the void more than adequately on ESPN2.

While Canadian networks can hang on a lot longer -- the NHL is clearly the No. 1 property in Canadian sports television, with the possible exception of the Olympics -- there's a pressure point for them, too, and it isn't far off.

There are fall schedules to build and plan very soon. As well, selling the game to advertisers, and promoting its rebirth in the fall won't happen overnight.

'MONEY WON'T BE THERE'

"You can't give your people two weeks to sell (ad spots)," said King. "The money won't be out there.

"Sponsors are not going to play that game anymore. If the league is not operating, it's hard to convince them to spend money on it."

Rogers Sportsnet president Doug Beeforth agreed getting the game back on track by the end of June would be "the perfect situation."

"It's pretty important," said Beeforth, whose network has regional TV deals with six Canadian NHL teams. "In Canada, nothing replaces NHL hockey, particularly home-town NHL hockey, which we specialize in."

Consider, too, that hockey talk could dominate Canadian airwaves and newspapers for most of the summer. There's 300 or so unsigned players to talk about, the Sidney Crosby draft, new rule changes ...

All there for the taking if the NHL can get its labour house in order.

"We're dying to talk hockey, NHL hockey," said King. "We can get a buzz going again, but we need time. We can't do it on two weeks notice. It's crucial they get this done before we get too far into the summer.

Added Beeforth: "We're a hockey nation. Just look at our (record ratings) numbers from the Memorial Cup. Sure, we had great story lines but more than anything, it was about hockey. And we just love that game."


Videos

Photos