On the Air with Bob Smizik: NHL is suffering for decision to leave ESPN in 2005

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The decision of NBC to leave the Buffalo-Ottawa playoff game as it was about to go to overtime for more than an hour of pre-Preakness talk Saturday was the ultimate humiliation for the NHL. The fact NBC was contractually within its rights to do so speaks to the weakness of the NHL position, which stems from the fact it does not draw the ratings necessary to have any degree of clout in TV negotiations.

NBC's decision was vindicated by the overnight ratings, which gave the Preakness a 5.4 number compared to the 1.2 for the Senators-Sabres in a game that decided the Eastern Conference championship.

NBC dumped the game to Versus, the primary cable partner of the NHL. It helped, but Versus is seen in about 70 million homes, barely half the potential audience of NBC.

It's pretty obvious the NHL made a mistake in leaving ESPN, which had the option to pick up its coverage of the NHL for the 2005-06 season but insisted on slashing what it would pay for the product. Feeling disrespected, and understandably so because ESPN was paying significantly more attention to the NBA and MLB, to say nothing of the NFL, the NHL took its games to Versus, which was the Outdoor Life Network at the time.

The league got more money from Versus -- although nothing substantial -- but the switch was as much about being treated with respect and being the No. 1 client.

In retrospect, the advantage of being on ESPN, even in a secondary role, was underappreciated by the NHL.

ESPN is so full of itself, brags so much about itself and constantly promotes itself that it's easy to get sick of it. But the network is, as it so pompously calls itself, "the world-wide leader."

No entity more shapes opinion of the sporting public, particularly the younger demographics, than ESPN. It might masquerade as a news organization, but in reality it's an entertainment organization. As such, it need only adhere to the ethics of journalism when it wants. It's free to laugh at those principles and often does.

With the NHL off of ESPN, the league has trouble getting a mention on the many arms of the all-sports network.

On ESPN's 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" Tuesday, the Western Conference final matchup between Anaheim and Detroit was not mentioned in the first hour of the 90-minute show. The program was top heavy on the NBA, going to great detail on the upcoming draft and the game later that night between San Antonio and Utah. Also mentioned were the sagas of Jason Giambi, Michael Vick, Trent Green, Floyd Landis and news of Joe Paterno, Mitch Mustain, Howard Porter, the LSU mascot, Mark Buehrle, NASCAR, the Indianapolis 500, George Foreman and emerging young pitchers in MLB (no Pirates).

All were legitimate stories. It's hard to imagine all were more newsworthy than a conference final of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But here's what's even harder to imagine: ESPN failing to have hockey mentioned in the first 30 minutes if it were involved with the sport. Once the NHL left ESPN, it basically ceased to exist.

It's not just "SportsCenter." If the NHL were carried by ESPN, they'd be talking about it on the "Dan Patrick Show" (not a word Tuesday in the more than 90 minutes we suffered through) and the stars of the sport would be schmoozing with Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on their highly popular morning show.

Such exposure generates interest and interest generates ratings and revenue.

The NHL has hopes that Versus will grow as hockey fans find it and watch it.

That's possible but not likely. If the NHL is going to rise out of the subbasement of sports popularity, it has to find a way to get back on ESPN.

Memory lane

The latest in FSN's "In My Own Words" series features Steve Blass and is an excellent walk down memory lane with one of the heroes of the Pirates' 1971 World Series win. In an interview with Stan Savran, Blass, currently a broadcaster for the team, talks candidly about his days with the Pirates, his relationship with Roberto Clemente and how he handled the heartbreaking end of his career, when, in his prime, his control famously vanished and forced him into a premature retirement.

The 30-minute show will be replayed at 1 p.m. May 31, 12:30 p.m. June 3 and 4:30 p.m. June 10.

Lange update

Mike Lange and the Penguins are in the early stages of discussions on a multiyear contract that would keep him as the radio voice of the Penguins. Lange, who did not respond to interview requests, is believed to still be interested in working in television, an option not available in Pittsburgh. But he is not believed to be a candidate in Phoenix, the only known opening.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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