Late one night in the 1980s, before digital and reality and Boo-yah!, David Letterman reeled off a list of the Top 10 Off-season Sports on ESPN. Shirts-and-Skins Speed Typing, Miniature Horseshoes, Oprah Tipping--the gag was funny because those events were only marginally more absurd than what viewers actually saw on the cable network. At that point ESPN had yet to broadcast an NFL or major league game, and it needed all the content it could get. Australian Rules Football, tractor pulls, the USFL ... if you were perspiring and had an opponent, chances were the folks in Bristol, Conn., would put you on the air.
The self-styled Worldwide Leader is more discriminating now, as the NHL learned last week when ESPN bid it adieu after serving as hockey's home since 1992. Even with airtime to fill on several networks, ESPN, which in June passed on a $60 million option for this season, couldn't see spending millions for a sport that was outdrawn by poker before it nuked the 2004-05 season.
One channel's money pit is another's loss leader, however, and 20 years from now we may see the NHL as the first pawn in a new battle for the attention of the sports viewer. Meet the Outdoor Life Network, which happily gobbled up two seasons' worth of NHL rights for $135 million last week. Or rather make that OLN: The 10-year-old network, known chiefly for its coverage of the Tour de France and its hunting shows, has already changed its name in an effort to shed its woodsy image. "We want to continue to be a leader in the outdoor and adventure worlds," says president Gavin Harvey, "but the NHL is one part--a huge part, but just one part--of an overall effort to reposition OLN."
The NHL may have tumbled from mainstream to field and stream, but OLN's parent company, Comcast, could be thinking big, by using hockey to help build a network to compete with ESPN. Over the last four years Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts--he oversees the nation's largest cable provider, with 21.4 million subscribers, and tried last year to acquire ESPN as part of a failed bid to buy Disney--has quietly built a sports empire. He has local networks in Philadelphia, Washington-Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Sacramento and San Francisco; two national entities, the Golf Channel and OLN; and ownership of the NHL's Flyers and the NBA's 76ers, plus two arenas in Philadelphia.
As ESPN once did, OLN has been stockpiling programming: the Tour de France, professional bullriding, the America's Cup yacht race, the Iditarod, the Boston Marathon and the Gravity Games. OLN is also talking to the NFL--which bestowed instant legitimacy on ESPN in 1987 and Fox in 1993 when it struck deals with the upstart networks--about a package of Thursday-night games starting with the 2006 season. TNT, TBS, FX and the NFL Network are also believed to be after those rights, but a source with knowledge of the NFL's TV committee told SI that OLN is "the leader in the clubhouse" to win the bidding, thanks largely to Comcast's vast subscriber base. "OLN has announced that it's open for business," says former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson. "Every important sports property will beat a path to see if they're interested."
OLN's emergence comes as ESPN redefines what a sports network should be. Under programming whiz Mark Shapiro--who last week announced he's leaving his executive vice president post to join Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's effort to take over Six Flags and morph the theme-park chain into an entertainment company--ESPN has focused on developing movies and series (Hustle, Playmakers) and shows like ESPN Hollywood that make some purists cringe. But ESPN president George Bodenheimer says he is happy with the course Shapiro set. "Based on our ratings and performance," he says, "we're on the right track."
OLN isn't above a little entertainment (Survivor reruns are a programming staple), but it sees an opening as it recasts itself as the Sweat Network. "We like the whole thing of competition, a very male-oriented network," says Marc Fein, vice president of programming. "We want to keep that base of outdoor enthusiasts but make it more about competition--man versus man, man versus nature, man versus beast."
It wouldn't mind a little network versus network action, either.
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"UConn might try to make an example of the arrested players." --TOUGH SLEDDING, PAGE 21
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG