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A ping pong table sits in the middle of the empty Edmonton Oilers' players dressing room at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Monday, Feb.7, 2004. (Walter Tychnowicz/CP)
A ping pong table sits in the middle of the empty Edmonton Oilers' players dressing room at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Monday, Feb.7, 2004. (Walter Tychnowicz/CP)

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No hockey a windfall for networks Add to ...

I Don’t Know What You Did Last Summer is now showing to empty arenas around North America. Many are commiserating with the Canadian TV network programers confronting a winter of prequels, sequels and canned laughter where hockey used to be. Actually, don’t feel all that badly for them. Canada’s cable TV sports networks are going to make more money by not showing NHL games this fall than if the NHL had started the season on time.

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To understand the inverse logic of the lockout and its victims, you need to consider that an average regular season broadcast in Canada can have production costs of about $60,000; typical advertising revenue for that game comes in anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 short of production costs.

Where the hockey cable broadcasters make their profit is from fees paid by cable/satellite companies (via your wallet) to make up the difference. The fees range from about 10 to 15 cents per subscription for Rogers newly acquired The Score to about $1.50 at Sportsnet and a little more than that at TSN. They allow the networks to make a profit – one that could soon grow if TSN gets up to the $5-per-subscriber fee its sister company ESPN gets in the U.S. (In 2011, Bell Media President Kevin Crull told The Globe & Mail that the fees TSN pays to broadcast sports events “could double every four to five years.”)

CBC does not receive subscription fees, but it does get government funding. Its production costs typically outstrip the advertising in regular season games, but CBC has the prime playoff package to recoup losses and see a profit. The playoff bonanza is why there will be such a battle for the national NHL TV package beginning in 2014. When cable carriers allow more choice to customers not wanting the 500-channel universe, prime programming such as the playoffs is gold.

Channel hopping

So what will TSN, Sportsnet and CBC show should the season not start on time on Oct. 11? To paraphrase the football jingle, Are You Ready For Some Minor League Hockey? Sportsnet is putting agreements in place with the American Hockey League and the junior Canadian Hockey League to show their games on its five channels.

In Sportsnet’s plan, Toronto fans might see the AHL Marlies games and OHL Brampton Battalion games on Sportsnet Ontario. Vancouver fans could see the Canucks’ Chicago Wolves affiliate and the WHL Vancouver Giants on Sportsnet Pacific. Depending on the length of the lockout, the volume of games could grow as the owners keep their star players sidelined.

TSN says “Like all hockey fans we are hopeful that an agreement can be worked out as soon as possible. But we are continuing to monitor the situation closely and looking at other programming options in the case of a lengthy work stoppage.” In lieu of hockey, TSN proposes expanded coverage of the MLS Playoffs, additional NFL from ESPN (including NFL Kickoff and NFL 32), expanded 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship coverage and additional NCAA Football and NCAA basketball games.

CBC could send Don Cherry on the road to visit players warming their hands by the barrel fire at the picket lines. Barring that, “CBC's first regular season game isn't until Oct. 11th, so there's no immediate need to roll out our plan as yet,” says CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson. “We'll go there when and if the league starts cancelling games.” So get the popcorn ready for Ron MacLean at the movies.

Cap crazy

One of the NHL’s repeated rationales for the its current salary-cap structure is the desire for parity. But a cursory glance at FOX’s MLB coverage this weekend revealed that small/medium markets Tampa Bay, Oakland, Washington, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are all still in the playoff hunt with two weeks left. Large market Boston, L.A. Angels, New York Mets, Philadelphia and Chicago Cubs are also-rans.

Major League Baseball – from whence NHLPA executive director Don Fehr came – has no salary cap. It has a luxury tax and no payroll minimums. Its regional-TV deals are now into the tens of billions of dollars. It also has had no labour disruptions since 1994, which makes that attractive to broadcasters. All the salary-capped leagues have had at least one labour disruption since then as they try to fit the square salary peg in the round cap hole.

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Who Dat’: Sports leagues talk about their social network sophistication, but the NFL, at least, flunked the test this weekend. ESPN reported Sunday morning that one of the replacement referees working the New Orleans game in Carolina has a Facebook page advertising his status as a diehard Saints fan. Side judge Brian Stropolo posted pictures of himself in Saints gear tailgating at an Aug. 25 preseason game. The faux-ref was quickly pulled from the contest.

How this escaped the NFL geniuses is unfathomable when you consider that Facebook checks are de rigeur in hiring practices of the 21st century. Stropolo’s site even had comments such as, “That's awesome you get to be an official for a Saints game! I didn't think they would let you since your (sic) from Louisiana." With billions of dollars bet on NFL this lapse in scrutiny verges on criminal.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the production costs and typical advertising revenue shortfall for an average regular season broadcast in Canada. This version has been corrected.

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