Seldom, if ever, has that august group known as the NHL brain trust been accused of progressive thinking. So it was cause for a double take when Tom Chestnut, a senior vice-president of SportsChannel America (SCA), the upstart cable outfit that last summer outbid ESPN for the NHL's TV rights, did just that last week. "The NHL," he said, "has really been visionary in coming along with us."
Well, Tom, that depends on the people you ask.
Hockey fans in the households fortunate enough to receive SCA are joyously getting more coverage than ever before. SportsChannel America telecasts hockey two nights a week in NHL cities and three nights a week elsewhere. Last year, ESPN generally carried the NHL only once a week nationwide.
But to the millions of disenfranchised fans—principally those beyond the Washington, D.C., New York, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Florida, New England and Chicago areas—SCA is nothing more than a tantalizing rumor, and NHL president John Ziegler is less a visionary than an avaricious cad who sold them down the river. Ziegler's statement on WFAN radio in New York on Jan. 26—"I've always had the feeling that the game belongs to the players and the owners first, and then to the fans"—did little to dispel that impression.
By accepting SCA's offer of $51 million for three years over ESPN's bid of some $32 million for the same period, Ziegler opted for money over exposure: ESPN reaches 50 million households; SCA, seven million. What recourse has the frustrated fan? "Call your local cable operator and pressure him to subscribe to SCA," says Chestnut. Be patient, says the NHL as it counts its money. Hockey fans left in the dark have only two questions: How do I get to the NHL offices? and, How does one fashion a noose?
"The silver lining is the letters I get from people who are receiving the service," says Joel Nixon, the NHL's vice-president of broadcasting. "They think this is the greatest."
Indeed, not only do they get more hockey telecasts (SCA will show more than 200 regular-season games this season compared with 33 last season for ESPN), but they also get action that's supposedly more meaningful to them—a Detroit-at-St. Louis Norris Division game, say, for subscribers in the Chicago suburbs.
The SportsChannel America telecasts aren't as lavishly produced as ESPN's were, nor does SCA have a commentator the equal of ESPN's knowledgeable Tom Mees, but it is nonetheless fairly wonderful—if you can get it. And therein lies the rub.
Why are regional cable systems and independent operators staying away from SCA in droves? Well, SportsChannel America is charging them what they consider to be an exorbitant amount in an attempt to recoup the $17 million a year it's paying the NHL. Although SportsChannel says its rates are only a third as high as ESPN's, a lot of operators are willing to sit tight until SportsChannel knocks down its price.
SportsChannel America got a major kick in the teeth last month when ESPN outbid it for cable rights to major league baseball. Baseball was precisely the kind of programming it needed to make its package irresistible to cable systems.
To let potential subscribers see what they were missing, SCA gave away the feed for last week's NHL All-Star Game to some cable systems, a cagey public relations move. In addition to the game's fight-free pace, the broadcast had pathos: There was a lump in every throat as the Edmonton crowd gave Wayne Gretzky a two-minute ovation when he was introduced and then cheered again after the game, when he was named the game's MVP. "I thought it was our best production yet," says Chestnut.
Still, an NHL source concedes that SCA went after the league a year too soon, but Jeff Ruhe, SCA's executive producer, disagrees. "You can get millions of subscribers with one or two key moves," he says. Last Thursday, SCA opened SportsChannel Ohio, a Cleveland-based pay service that will carry the NHL plus some Cavalier games. SCA also is trying to start operations in Pittsburgh and St. Louis and is angling to land Los Angeles's Z Channel.
"Keep the faith," says Ruhe. "We're going to make it."
Whether they do or don't, the folks at SCA will tell you—over and over—that their idea of regionalized cable service is the wave of the future. They could be right. It's unfortunate for NHL fans that this season, the wave is still miles out at sea.