SBD/Issue 167/Sports Media

Strong NHL Playoffs Overshadowed By Lingering TV Rights Issues

First Two Periods Of Canes-Bruins Game
Seven Available Only On Regional Nets
While the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been a "showcase for the NHL's greatest young players," they also have "exposed the folly of [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman's love affair with Versus and the grudge he carries against ESPN," according to Larry Brooks of the N.Y. POST. Bettman "may have been justified in not taking ESPN's crumbs coming out of the lockout," but he was "not justified in granting Versus a contract that included unilateral options for the network to retain exclusivity through 2010-11." The playoffs have "exposed the NHL's empty approach to a television strategy, even as Bettman risks dislocating his shoulders in patting himself on the back for his league's innovative approach to blacking itself out." The NHL Network is "no help," as it "doesn't seem to have the authority to pick up local feeds." As a result, Game Seven of the Hurricanes-Bruins Eastern Conference Semifinal series on Thursday was "played in the dark" nationally until Versus joined the game in progress after Red Wings-Ducks Game Seven had ended. Versus also "did not go live to [Hurricanes-Bruins] between periods" of Red Wings-Ducks (N.Y. POST, 5/17).

CAN'T PLEASE EVERYONE: Bettman appeared on WFAN-AM's "Mike Francesa" show Friday and discussed why Game Five of the Penguins-Capitals Eastern Conference Semifinals series on May 9 was on Versus instead of NBC. Bettman, citing the PGA Tour The Players Championship, said, "NBC had contractual commitments, and we knew about it. ... NBC is a terrific partner and we have no complaints." Bettman: "Had we shown the game in the afternoon, I promise you there would have been screaming from our friends in Canada that we didn't have a game on Saturday night for ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ We have five national packages that all go at about the same time. We have multi-language and two countries. It is more complex in terms of the scheduling than perhaps anybody else has to deal with at the league level." Bettman added, "Versus has really been growing and doing a terrific job. They don't get enough credit for what they're doing. If you look at Versus’ numbers for the semifinal round this year and compare it to the last time we were on ESPN and ESPN2 we are actually doing better numbers. So this myth that we are somehow not in the right place is ridiculous" ("Mike Francesa," YES Network, 5/15).

GOING FOR SECONDS: ESPN.com's Damien Cox wrote under the header, "Will NHL Benefit From These Playoffs?" The question is "how much the NHL benefited from having its most competitive second round in almost a quarter century." The "ongoing bankruptcy battle over the future of the Phoenix Coyotes offers an instructive backdrop to these NHL playoffs, for although the quality of play has been undeniably high, if a tad vicious at times, there are still those who argue that the league remains stubbornly regional in nature and thus is wasting its time keeping teams in certain markets as part of a larger U.S. footprint." But the league is "populated these days by the largest collection of young stars it has boasted in years, maybe ever, and many are still active participants in the postseason." Cox: "Is it all growing the game and expanding its appeal? Big cities, big stars and thrilling competition might just catch on if the NHL can keep up the momentum established in the past two weeks" (ESPN.com, 5/15).

NUMBERS UP IN CANADA: TSN averaged 681,000 viewers for 13 broadcasts during the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, up 21% over 561,000 last year. The 681,000 total also marked the most-viewed second round ever on the net, topping the previous high of 575,000 viewers set in '07 (TSN).

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