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Maybe It’s Addition by Subtraction for ESPN

Two headlines no one thought they would be reading in 2005:

“NHL Signs New National TV Deal With Outdoor Life Network.”

“Mark Shapiro Bolts ESPN to Help Daniel Snyder Run Six Flags.”

Stranger still, both of these bizarre news stories broke on the same day. Knowing how things tend to happen in threes, you kept waiting for the next unbelievable headline to drop, and ... hold on a minute, here’s one ... oh, no, not quite ... sorry, “Randy Moss Admits Marijuana Use” doesn’t qualify here.

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Indoor hockey on the outdoor network?

Shapiro and Snyder to combine to oversee roller coasters that do not involve the Washington Redskins or the broadcasting career of Rush Limbaugh?

Amid all the posturing and spinning about the supposed logic behind both moves, two quotes particularly resonate:

AEG and King President Tim Leiweke: “We’re in love with the whole deal. And we have the right partners.... This deal marks a fresh start. ESPN was a servant to 20 masters. On OLN, at least for now, we will be the single most important sport.”

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Shapiro: “Radio and television are in the same business as theme parks -- the emotion transportation universe.”

ESPN’s serving 20 masters is a sad reality to sports such as hockey and sports fans who are fans of, well, sports.

Back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, ESPN was a brand that stood for solid sports coverage -- live events, highlights, previews and analysis. That brand has been steadily diluted over the last decade, especially under the leadership of Shapiro, who saw his network not so much a journalistic enterprise as a kiddie fun park, where every new attraction had to be louder and splashier and tackier than the one before it.

Since becoming ESPN’s head of programming and production in 2002, Shapiro reshaped the network with a simple credo: Raise the volume and lower the intelligence level. His legacy is a stable of broadcasters -- and worse for this side of the profession, sportswriters who have fallen prey to the dark side -- who believe the road to success involves shouting a lot and speaking in semi-coherent and semi-glib sound bites.

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Some of the gems for which Shapiro’s wild ride at ESPN will be remembered: “Around the Horn.” “Quite Frankly.” “Season on the Brink.” “Hustle.” “Dream Job.” “1st And 10.” “Playmakers.” “I’d Do Anything.” “ESPN Hollywood.”

No wonder the NHL felt shoved to the fringes, out of favor, out of place.

What’s a real sport, one that celebrates grinders and team players and lunch-bucket work ethic, doing in this kind of crowd?

Today, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is receiving kudos from league owners for somehow pulling dollars -- big dollars -- out of his magic hat. After killing an entire season and alienating all but the most hard-core fans, the NHL was lucky to find any network willing to pay them a rights fee of any kind, let alone what OLN will ante up: $65 million this season, $70 million next season and an option for at least $72.5 million in 2007-08.

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But at what cost those millions?

By jumping from ESPN to OLN, the NHL is reducing its exposure at a time when it needs it the most. ESPN is available in roughly 90% of U.S. households. OLN comes in at about 60%.

The league will also try to sell its product on Monday and Tuesday nights, the time blocks OLN has set aside for national NHL telecasts.

Monday nights? Hmmm. Could you think of a worse time to televise hockey in this country than opposite “Monday Night Football” in October, November and December?

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On the bright side, OLN and the NHL can look forward to sending out news releases next February that read, “Hockey Ratings on Rise Since End of December!”

Bettman’s deal with OLN is similar, on several levels, to David Stern’s decision to move the NBA from NBC to ESPN and TNT, trading the accessibility of free TV for big cable bucks. Stern made his owners more money in the short term, but the long-range effect has been a lower national profile for his league.

And Stern’s league had a couple things going for it that Bettman’s league does not.

One, basketball was and remains a popular sport in this country.

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Two, at the time of the NBA’s last TV deal, Stern’s league hadn’t just spent the previous year with owners and players doing nothing except pointing fingers at one another.

Questions still to be answered:

How many ESPN hockey commentators will follow the league to OLN?

And, more important, how many TV viewers will make the same trek?

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Available for viewing this weekend:

TODAY

* Boston Red Sox at Angels

(Channel 11, 1 p.m.)

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The Angels and the Red Sox would like to believe this is a preview of the American League championship series.

The Angels and the Red Sox would also like to believe the regular season ends this weekend -- or that the A’s and the White Sox will somehow, someway just fade away.

* Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans

(Channel 2, 5 p.m.)

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Last Saturday, an exhibition game between the Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers on Channel 2 was the most-watched sporting event in Los Angeles, drawing a 5.1 rating with a 10 share, compared to a 2.0 rating and 5 share earned by the Dodgers and the New York Mets on Channel 11.

A statement on the state of the NFL in this country? Or the Dodgers in 2005? Or both?

SUNDAY

* Dodgers at Florida Marlins

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(Channel 13, 10 a.m.)

Good news for the Dodgers: This Sunday’s NFL exhibition game, St. Louis Rams at San Diego Chargers on Channel 9, doesn’t air until 1 p.m.


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