Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman returns to the U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court after a lunch break in Phoenix, Arizona, September 2, 2009. The NHL and Canadian billionaire James Balsillie battled in court on Wednesday, arguing over whether Balsillie's bid for the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes team should be included in an auction set for next week. (JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS/Joshua Lott)
National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman returns to the U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court after a lunch break in Phoenix, Arizona, September 2, 2009. The NHL and Canadian billionaire James Balsillie battled in court on Wednesday, arguing over whether Balsillie's bid for the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes team should be included in an auction set for next week. (JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS/Joshua Lott)

Usual Suspects

Jury still out on NHL shunning ESPN Add to ...

It's still an open question whether NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's gambit of taking his league from ESPN to Outdoor Life Network (later Versus) in 2005 is a success or not. Even as confirmation emerges this week of Versus morphing to NBC Sports Channel come January (a move we signalled last April), it's an open question whether shunning the World Wide Leader was a plus or a bust in the U.S.

In Bettman's defence, former ESPN honcho Mark Shapiro tried to take advantage of the Ligue Nationale du Hockey as it emerged from the lockout in 2005, offering just $30-million for the TV rights (which was below the option renewal price). As revealed in the book ESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun, the overweening Shapiro makes Bettman look like Captain Kangaroo by comparison. The take-it-or-leave-it offer was calculated as an insult, and Bettman took it that way.

So, for $210-million over three years and the promise of being a whale in a minnow pond, Bettman called Shapiro's bluff and alighted to OLN, being run by his mentor Ed Snider, owner of the Philly Flyers. The dough was nice, the promotion was nice, and flipping the bird to intractable ESPN was very nice.

That gave Bettman a dedicated partner, one where, unfortunately, the sport was shunned by all but uber-committed hockey fans. Between OLN/Versus and NBC, the NHL became the D.B. Cooper of leagues, hard to find under any circumstance. Even buried on ESPN2 for a pittance, fans would have easily found the new and improved product. At Versus it was Green Party visibility. Players, fans and owners regularly lamented the search for the Versus signal, which was like navigating the Master levels of Doom II.

It was HBO's 24/7 and the NBC Winter Classic that turned the American public mood back toward hockey. (Okay, a portion of the American public larger than quorum at a bus stop.) The residual good cheer resulted in the 10-year, $2 billion NBC Universal deal this spring, an affiliation that could spread the NHL's brand across NBC's many channels.

But attributing the 2011 NBC payoff to the Versus move in 2005 is a stretch. Who knew they'd merge with NBC back in the dark post-lockout days? Could ESPN have brought the NHL more public recognition earlier? Unlikely so long as they buried the NHL on their second network. It was exterior forces that changed the landscape. Till it got with the new rules, Winter Classics and HBOs, the U.S. public simply wasn't buying what Bettman was selling.

So the NHL got more money from OLN/Versus, the visibility issue with ESPN2 was a wash, and now there is the hope that NBC's diverse universe of TV channels and web platforms can deliver more than ESPN. Conclusion: It took a while, but Bettman's stand against Shapiro finally has paid off in modest fashion. Which is about the best hockey can hope for in the shadow the NFL, NCAA, NBA and MLB.

The Wang Stuff: This year's winner of Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession goes to New York Islander owner Charles Wang. The billionaire owner of the hapless NHL team had a clever plan to make tax payers on Long Island hold the can for a new arena for his squad. Then, just as it appeared he might slip the proposition through on a sleepy August Monday plebiscite, Wang got sideswiped in the D.C. media maelstrom over public indebtedness.

Even as the Tea Party made debt financing a viral issue, Wang was asking taxpayers on the Island (among the most taxed in America) to cover his financial tush to the tune of $350-million for a new arena/baseball park. By the time John Boehner and Harry Reid were done addressing the quatrillion-dollar sinkhole in the federal budget, there was as much appetite for floating Wang a loan as there was for invading Canada.

So the whole house of jokers came crashing to the ice Monday night. Making the future of the Isles (they have a lease at the Baths of Caracalla... er, the Nassau County Coliseum till 2015) uncertain at best. But Isles fans can take heart that Islanders broadcaster "The Hockey Maven" Stan Fischler is on the tweet: "The Coliseum vote is neither a defeat for a new arena nor does it mean that Isles will leave Nassau. Exec Mangano is right; 'We'll solve it'." Maybe Stan means that Wang will now spend his own money? File under: revolutionary ideas.

Oil Rush: With Edmonton's CHED retaining the Oilers radio rights, Oilers Lunch with Bob Stauffer is headed to the same station from CFRN TEAM 1260. In response, TEAM 1260 is patching with morning man Dustin Nielson doing noon to 1 p.m. with Sportsnet's Mark Spector going from 1-2 p.m. Without a Rogers or CHUM station in the city's sports roster, Edmonton is not a target in the ongoing rights battle between the telcoms.

Best Of Friends: They don't call him Zinger for nothing. Via Twitter: "PaulAzinger I've rarely heard a Mark O'meara interview when Mark O'meara didn't say Mark O'meara. But I still like Mark O'meara inspite of that fact." Yeah, sure you do.

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Sports

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories