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No-See TV With ratings sinking, the NHL prepares to take a hit as it renegotiates its TV contract

The Bertuzzi affair couldn't have come at a worse time for the
NHL. The $600 million television contract the league signed with
ABC and ESPN in 1999 expires after this season, and there's a
better chance of the Stanley Cup finals outrating the Super Bowl
than of a new deal coming anywhere near the dollars of the old

The NHL says other networks have shown interest, but currently
it's talking seriously with just ABC and ESPN. A lack of suitors
isn't the only reason why the league has no leverage. Last
month's All-Star Game on ABC drew lower ratings than the Arena
Football League. This season ESPN and ESPN2 scaled back from last
year's 102 games to 71 to make room for its NBA coverage, and
ESPN has seen regular-season NHL ratings tumble from a high of
1.2 in 1994-95 to 0.5 this season. "Overall I'm happy with our
partnership," says George Bodenheimer, president of ABC Sports
and ESPN. "But from a ratings perspective the sport has

After a decade of unsuccessfully trying to promote the NHL on
national television--remember Fox's glowing puck?--hockey still
isn't must-see TV. The simple reason: Americans aren't Canadian.
It's not just that the puck is hard to see. It's that casual
viewers south of the border don't fully understand what they're
watching. (And it doesn't help that scoring is near historically
low levels.) The 30-team NHL, which has expanded or relocated
into 11 cities in the U.S. since 1991, is still an embryonic
presence in much of the country. "As a television product hockey
is really in its start-up phase," says Jon Litner, the NHL's
chief operating officer. The league is clinging to the hope that
high-definition TV will help the myopic American audience see the
game. "HDTV is a tipping point for us," says Litner. And the
sport has one surprising demographic selling point. "Hockey has a
more affluent, better-educated audience than any other major
sport," says Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports.

Reduced national TV revenue might not be fatal, especially if the
gate-driven league succeeds in reducing player salaries when the
current labor agreement expires on Sept. 15. (The ABC/ESPN deal
netted teams only about $4 million per year.) But a watered-down
deal would be perceived as yet another indication that the sport
is a niche, not a national, pastime. --Stephen Cannella

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA WHERE'S THE PUCK? The All-Star game got a 1.8 rating and wasoutdrawn by an Arena Football game.