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A Soured Relationship Could Be Sweet Again

At least hockey fans are familiar with the strategy ESPN is using in its off-again, on-again interest in NHL television rights.

It is called dump and chase.

Dump the contract in April, let Comcast do the dirty work and make the NHL a tangible offer, then chase the contract again.

Comcast dropped the puck this week with its two-year, $100-million offer to televise the NHL on its Outdoor Life Network, which is the kind of found humor Gary Bettman’s league seems to pride itself in.

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Ice hockey, the quintessential indoor sport, on the Outdoor Life Network?

That makes as much sense as having more NHL franchises south of Kentucky than in Canada, but that’s the NHL.

Of course, the Outdoor Life Network prefers to cloak itself behind its initials, OLN, a handle that became popular among cycling enthusiasts, who came to know the channel as the Only Lance Network. The NHL on OLN? It does have a ring. Say it fast enough and no one will have the chance to make any more outdoor hockey jokes.

Then again, the issue could be moot if ESPN exercises its right to match any offer. Earlier this week, the network, which declined an option to televise NHL games on ESPN2 for $60 million this season, issued a statement, saying: “We have a matching right and remain interested in continuing our relationship with the NHL, as long as the deal is commensurate with the value of the rights being offered.”

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Now ESPN has a number to work with -- a smaller number -- and the NHL and ESPN have motivation to reach an accord.

For the NHL, the incentive is obvious. For better or worse, ESPN is the leading brand name in American sports television. In today’s media culture, the ESPN logo has a legitimizing effect on any activity -- even non-sports -- it chooses to air. Look what the network has done for poker, fishing and competitive eating.

Without its long-standing ESPN rubber stamp, the NHL risks becoming more of a niche sport tucked away on a niche network.

But ESPN also needs the NHL. What kind of “Worldwide Leader in Sports” allows the sport of Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull to leave the building, quit the family, vacate the premises without a fight?

Keeping the NHL makes economic as well as promotional sense for ESPN, which has had a virtual monopoly in the national cable sports market ever since it squashed Fox’s challenge. Let the NHL slip away to OLN and ESPN will essentially assist in birthing a new cable rival.

At the moment, OLN is available in about 61 million U.S. households. That figure lags behind ESPN2’s 70-million-plus homes, but OLN should be able to increase its range by adding the NHL to its portfolio.

Comcast has big-time aspirations for OLN, which earned recognition and respectability among sports fans with its outstanding Tour de France coverage. OLN has already acquired such former ESPN properties as the America’s Cup and the Boston Marathon, and its Gravity Games are an obvious rival to ESPN’s X Games.

Journalistically, ESPN benefits by keeping the NHL. Unlike certain other higher-profile sports, ESPN knows how to cover hockey. It has 20 years of experience to bank on, and over that time it has assembled the network’s most impressive roster of single-sport commentators: Barry Melrose, Bill Clement, John Davidson, Darren Pang, Gary Thorne.

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ESPN needs to do more of what it does well, not less.

To paraphrase the old industry axiom: If it ain’t broke, don’t let it traipse off to OLN.

Familiar Strategy

Terms of the Comcast deal call for two nationally televised NHL games a week on OLN for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. The NHL would have the right to opt out of the agreement after the 2006-07 season. Should the NHL decide to stay on after two seasons, Comcast has a one-year option followed by a three-year option.

Comcast’s interest in the NHL extends beyond its desire to pump up OLN’s profile. Comcast is a major owner of the Philadelphia Flyers. Its designs on the NHL echo those of Disney’s a decade ago, when the owner of the Mighty Ducks had a vested interest in propping up the sport, eventually signing off on an outrageous five-year, $600-million deal to televise NHL games on ABC and ESPN.

That agreement wound up harming the NHL more than helping it, creating the false impression that the NHL was a “boom” league in the United States when in fact it had legs only until Gretzky put aside his skates.

It also contributed in an increase in player salaries, which led to the 2004-05 lockout, which led to ESPN’s dumping the television contract in April, which led to Comcast’s jumping into the game, which led everyone to where we are today -- waiting for ESPN to make the next move.

One More Case For Hockey

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As reality shows go, it is difficult to beat live sports, including those played on sheets of ice. Yet ESPN persists in slipping and sliding down the dubious path of gimmick TV.

The network announced this week plans for a reality series starring -- are you ready? -- Bob Knight as a sort of ill-tempered Donald Trump scrutinizing the athletic abilities and aspirations of 16 Texas Tech basketball wannabes competing for one walk-on spot on the roster.

“Knight School,” featuring six one-hour episodes, is scheduled to debut in February. According to the publicity release, “Over the course of the series, these 16 players are put through a gauntlet of drills, conditioning tests, scrimmages, and games until there is only one player left standing. ‘Knight School’ will offer viewers an unprecedented look into the mind, coaching style and priorities of a college basketball icon.”

Amazing. After ESPN’s last attempt to look into the mind, coaching style and priorities of Knight in the hilariously horrendous “Season On The Brink,” you’d have figured Knight would never again have anything to do with that dreaded phrase, “ESPN Original Entertainment.”

Evidently, Knight has a shorter memory and is more forgiving than Brian Dennehy, whose acting career was all but pushed to the brink by “Brink.”

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Larry Stewart is on vacation.


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