A rare deal: Fox, ESPN will team up on hockey


In its second major coup in 10 months, the rapidly burgeoning Fox Sports department yesterday finalized a deal to televise NHL games for the next five years, beginning with this season's All-Star Game in January in San Jose, Calif.

The NHL deal, which allows Fox to share coverage with ESPN, is one of those rare arrangements in which all the involved parties walked away happy.

Fox, which just launched four years' worth of NFL coverage, further solidifies its position as a major player in both sports broadcasting and television as a whole, as it will carry 11 to 17 games, mostly on Sundays, this season, with the possibility of 20 games or more by the fifth year.

ESPN, which was in the third year of a five-year pact, gets two more years added to its deal and exclusive coverage of the league's conference finals and most of the Stanley Cup series, meaning local cable carriers will be blacked out for the final two rounds of the playoffs.

And, most importantly, the NHL, which had not been seen regularly on a broadcast network in 20 years, save for All-Star Games, selected playoff matches and a few games on ABC last year, returns to over-the-air coverage.

"We were flattered to find out that there was network interest," said Stephen Solomon, the NHL's senior vice president.

Fox reportedly will pay the NHL $155 million -- $50 million more than CBS was willing to pay -- over the length of the contract.

That's a tenth of the whopping $1.58 billion it took to get the NFL away from CBS, but a figure that is believed to be overly high when one considers that NHL games on ABC averaged a paltry %% 1.7 rating for 11 games over two years.

The Fox-NHL deal was done with youth in mind. The network's demographics skew heavily toward the 18-34 age group, precisely the people who are coming to hockey.

And Fox may not be done acquiring properties. Having captured first the NFL and now hockey, there are rumors afloat that the upstarts at Fox are after Wimbledon coverage and the Summer Olympics from Sydney, Australia, in the year 2000.

"What my bosses have said is we are determined to take Fox to a full-fledged status," Fox Sports president David Hill said. "We will develop an opportunistic approach toward every sport that comes along."

Can you picture Homer Simpson curtsying before the queen? Whoo-hoo!

Ratings game

Sunday's Washington-New Orleans Saints game on Channel 45 copped the lowest ratings for a televised football game in Baltimore in at least four years, according to "On the Air" ratings supplier Sharon Walz of Channel 11.

The Redskins game, which aired at 4 p.m., attracted a paltry 3.6 rating and a 7 share Sunday and was beaten handily by its direct competition, the Houston-Dallas clash on Channel 2, which did a The Miami-Green Bay game, which aired at 1 p.m. on Channel 11 without competition, got a 10.1/25.

Even the U.S. Open, which had done a 2.0/8 on Friday afternoon and a 2.4/7 on Saturday on Channel 11, beat the Redskins, getting a 6.0/12 Sunday at 4 p.m.

In other ratings highlights, Saturday's Maryland-Florida State game (5.8/19) on Channel 13 beat the Notre Dame-Michigan tilt (4.9/15) on Channel 2, while the CFLs continued to do well, as their final prime-time game against Sacramento did a 6.2/12.

SI's Top 40

Ted Shaker, who heads up the new Sports Illustrated TV division, had a veritable Dream Team of writing and broadcasting talents at his disposal to present the people the magazine considers the 40 most significant sports figures over its 40-year history in a one-hour special airing tonight at 10 on Channel 2.

Included were SI's award-winning writer Gary Smith, who wrote the special's script, host Bob Costas, who taped many of the lead-ins from Camden Yards, and musician Branford Marsalis, who composed an original score for the program.

The top 10, in order, are Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, former ABC Sports president Roone Arledge, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Pete Rose, former baseball union chief Marvin Miller, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who merit a joint entry, Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack, the head of the International Management Group.


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