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NBA in!!! NHL out???

Dear Mr. Buccigross,

With ESPN acquiring the NBA contract, does that mean that fewer hockey games will be televised? Will I have to go without my beloved Avs and watch Shaq instead? Please respond!

A worried hockey fan,
Dave McAllister
Portland Oregon

Last week I received more emails than I normally do from you because of concerns similar to Dave's. I chose Dave out of the hundreds in my Inbox because he doesn't live in an NHL city. You might. But, Dave and others like him who don't have satellite dishes or NHL Center Ice, rely on ESPN and ESPN2 to see their televised NHL games. There are less than two dozen NHL markets and 282 million people in all who live in the United States.

Dave is concerned because the NBA has reached a six year agreement with ABC, ESPN and AOL Time Warner to have ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, TNT and a new AOL Time Warner/NBA jointly owned cable network, televise NBA games beginning this fall. ESPN gets 75 regular season games with no local blackouts, one game on Wednesday and doubleheaders on Friday nights in primetime. ESPN also gets about twenty games in the first two rounds of the playoffs and one Conference final on an exclusive basis. ABC gets 15 regular season game of the weeks on Sunday afternoons, five playoff games and the NBA finals.

ESPN and the NHL signed a five year television deal in 2000 that has two more years left after this season. This season ESPN has had a very well produced and entertaining Wednesday Night Hockey format. As the above paragraph informs, the NBA will take Wednesday nights next season. What will ESPN's new night be? Probably Tuesday.

I had conversations with some ESPN brass and here's what I came away with:

1) ESPN is committed to finding a night on ESPN to carry NHL games once a week. ESPN is in 86 million U.S. homes, about three and a half more than ESPN2

2) ESPN 2 will continue carrying games. Of course, with the NBA coming in that means fewer programming hours available. In the fall, ESPN2 will have to juggle College Basketball, College Football, the NBA, the NHL, Phil Esposito's Bodyshaping, and World Strongest Ferrets to name a few. It doesn't take Chief Clancy Wiggum to figure out that probably means fewer games on ESPN2, mainly from October-December. I imagine after the College Bowl games in early January, the hockey schedule will look almost similar as it does now with perhaps just a handful fewer games.

3) ABC will televise NBA games on Sunday afternoons which allows ABC to keep its Saturday coverage of the NHL unchanged.

4) The playoffs get dicey. ESPN and ESPN 2 will have to juggle the NHL playoffs, NBA playoffs and Major League Baseball come April, May, and June 2003. Even ESPN probably isn't sure how they will make this happen, but, keep in mind when you have control of the television packages, you have a little say in scheduling. ESPN will make this work.

5) ESPN now has television with the big four team sports. That validates the "World Wide Leader in Sports" slogan, and is probably valuable when selling advertising. It was this networks destiny. There is only one Weather Channel. That's where you go for the weather. There is only one Sports Network. This four legged sports monster (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN CLASSIC) is where you come for sports. Those are just the facts.

Yes, the NBA is coming to the ESPN family. Keep in mind that last summer about 15 million people watched Game 1 of the NBA finals, while NHL finals games last year between Colorado and New Jersey averaged a little over five million people a telecast. (Game 7 got over 7 million) With that in mind, you can understand ESPN's focus.

That being said, there are important people in place at ABC and ESPN who do share our love of hockey and have an understanding of the games appeal. They know as we know that all rose colored glasses aside, that ours is the best game. That no other game DEMANDS teamwork and sacrifice and humility and persistence and courage and passion like hockey. That is why those who play the game are considered the best in all of sports to deal with. Because the game teaches and ingrains those qualities in most of them. So, you have television friends in high places fighting for your game. But, it wouldn't hurt if you could get a few more of your friends to watch.

John Buccigross
NHL Hockey Fan



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