St. Louis -- While eight teams battled their way through
the second round of the National Hockey League playoffs, smaller teams of network and
league executives were meeting in New York to develop a game plan for the Disney era in
A five-year, $600 million, all-Disney package takes the ice
in the 1999-2000 season with The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC as the broadcast partner and sister
networks ESPN and ESPN2 continuing to share national cable duties.
But with the Stanley Cup playoffs under way, this season
and the Fox/ESPN era that ends with it are far from over. So far, the messages being sent
about hockey are a mixed bag.
ESPN and the NHL touted double-digit percentage gains
year-to-year for the playoffs, but cynics pointed to double-digit declines in
Then there are the numbers posted by Fox -- now known as
"lame-duck Fox" -- during a five-year hold on the over-the-air rights to the
Over the five years of the contract, the network averaged a
healthy 4.3 in six cities (New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit and
Boston), representing 16 percent of the households in the United States, but it only
pulled a 1.1 in the remaining 84 percent of markets.
Fox and ESPN also suffered through four Stanley Cup Finals
sweeps in a row. Sweeps are fun for fans of the winning team, but they make for less than
compelling hockey for most viewers.
Fox's regular-season ratings didn't slip from last year's
1.4, but its playoff numbers have been all over the place: 1.6 for the first Sunday of
playoff telecasts, when three early first-round games were played; 0.9 for the second week
(with two sixth games); and 2.0 for the third Sunday, featuring two early second-round
The swing factor in the ups and downs:
"Hockeytown," Detroit, didn't play on the second Sunday, with the Red Wings
having swept the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the first round.
"The markets involved on any given Sunday, especially
during the Stanley Cup playoffs, really have a major impact on the ratings," Fox
Sports vice president of media relations Lou D'Emilio said.
"It also depends on competition," he added.
"The Stanley Cup playoffs on Sunday afternoons are up against pretty stiff
competition, including the NBA [National Basketball Association] playoffs. There are a
number of factors involved there."
In New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- NHL cities with
teams that didn't make the playoffs -- the pivotal games played on the fourth Sunday drew
less than a point. But Detroit -- host of the Stanley Cup winners for the past two years
-- racked up a 16.3, and competitor Denver -- home of the Colorado Avalanche -- pulled a
The postseason has brought ESPN some of its best playoff
numbers ever. More than 1.5 million households tuned in when two series produced seventh
and deciding games on the same night.
The Eastern Conference quarterfinal on ESPN -- when the
Pittsburgh Penguins upset the New Jersey Devils -- averaged a 1.3, hit nearly 1 million
homes and was the fourth-most-watched first-round playoff game on the network.
And the stunning late-night overtime victory by the St.
Louis Blues over the Phoenix Coyotes on ESPN2 averaged a 0.85 and was seen in more than
500,000 homes, producing the fourth-best NHL rating overall for "The Deuce."
Overall, through the third game of the second round, ESPN
was up 21 percent over last year, to 0.85 from 0.7, while ESPN2 increased 17 percent, to
0.56 from 0.49.
Regular-season ratings were down 12 percent for ESPN, to
0.59, and down 16 percent for ESPN2, to 0.32.
"I just think there is a level of drama that develops
as a series develops," ESPN executive vice president Dick Glover said. The best
television is "when you get to a position where this is it, this game decides,
somebody's through for the season and somebody still has a chance to win the Stanley
Glover added, "By the same token, obviously, there is
the luck of the draw. We've gotten to the Stanley Cup Finals and, boom, there's a
four-game series. I think we're due for seven."
Not surprisingly, the mixed numbers can support just about
any viewpoint, from those who insist that the regional appeal of hockey means it can never
be a truly successful national sport, to those who see a brighter future up the road.
"All along I've said we will know whether we succeeded
or failed based on what happens at the end of the contract and whether or not there would
be other people interested in buying the rights," Fox Sports executive producer Ed
"The fact that the NHL was able to negotiate a $600
million contract tells me that the last five years have been successful," he added.
"There have been a lot of people saying a lot of silly
things, and I don't quite understand everything I read or hear," Goren said. "If
I believe everything I read or hear, then the only problem the NHL has had over the past
five years has been Fox's promotion of hockey or Fox's coverage. The bottom line is that
more people have watched hockey on Fox in the last five years than have ever watched
hockey on network television."
NHL and the Disney networks' executives think the potential
for synergy in cross-promotion and marketing between the family of networks could be just
the shot the league needs.
"The ability that those properties have to promote and
cross-promote the sport, working side by side with each other, we think is an integral
element in creating broader awareness for the sport and growing our television fan
base," NHL senior vice president and chief operating officer Steve Solomon said.
The first-time provision for exclusive NHL games on ESPN is
a key element of the new deal. In the past, the local market broadcaster has been able to
broadcast regionally and black out ESPN.
Now, during the regular season, ESPN will have exclusivity
for most of its weekly broadcasts, reverting to shared games in the playoffs. ABC will
start with the NHL All-Star Game, then pick up a significant number of weekly games for
the last four weeks and weekly playoff games for six weeks.
"The mix is absolutely the right formula for our
sport," Solomon said.
Even though the Fox broadcasting network will no longer be
part of the NHL picture, Fox's ties to the NHL live on through Fox Sports Net.
Fox Sports Net and its affiliates own the local broadcast
rights to 19 NHL teams, and they will produce more than 900 NHL games next year, just as
they did this season. And Fox's ownership interests in the NHL's New York Rangers and Los
Angeles Kings magnifies that importance.
"We're still going to do more hockey than anyone
else," Fox Sports Net executive vice president of programming and production Arthur
Even though Smith said national regular-season numbers are
up at Fox Sports Net, the numbers in some key markets are mixed.
Phoenix, Dallas and Detroit all showed increases, while New
York -- even with Wayne Gretzky -- declined from 1.1 to 0.9, and Pittsburgh went down a
point, from 5.4 to 4.4.