Final meltdown of relationship between Fox, NHL begins today

With the beginning of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight (Channel 45, 8 o'clock), the curtain begins to come down on Fox's relationship with the NHL, and to call it tempestuous is to put it mildly.

The network and the league seemed to butt heads continually during their five-year marriage, and the parting, while amicable, isn't exactly smooth.


For one thing, during the course of the relationship, Fox officials were repeatedly rebuffed as they asked the league to make subtle changes to make the game more appealing to television audiences.

And they took knocks from the hockey intelligentsia for attempting to drag the sport into the 20th century technologically, with the biggest criticism coming for their computer-enhanced, glowing puck.


"There are too many people who believe that the only important audience is in the stadium," said Ed Goren, Fox's executive producer. "That kind of thinking is counter-productive for a sport that's trying to grow an audience. We're getting a 2 rating, which means we're in 2 million households. If we've got a general manager worried more about the 15,925 in the building, that's some very narrow thinking."

By contrast, Fox's relationship with baseball couldn't be better. Goren said Major League Baseball, which hasn't exactly been accused of being progressive in its dealings with television partners (see: current fight with ESPN, previous fights with NBC and ABC), has gone out of its way to help the network.

"I never thought I would use these two words in the same sentence: baseball and enlightened," said Goren last week. "But, really, that's what's developed over the last few years. This is, far and away, the strongest schedule we have had in four years. They've been a wonderful partner, and we're not finished."

There was some bad luck involved with the NHL as well. Most networks make the bulk of their money during postseason telecasts, but each of the four previous Stanley Cup Finals that Fox has carried have been sweeps. And since the network had to share Finals carriage with ESPN, the proceeds were further diminished.

The final insult came last summer when the NHL joyously announced that it had signed a five-year, $600 million deal with Disney for telecasts on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2.

Trouble was, there was still a year to go on the Fox contract, and the network was left holding the bag, without a way to get out of the contract or to sell the package to the league or Disney a year early.

But the network is going out with its head held high, with Mike Emrick and John Davidson on the game call, and Joe Michelletti serving as rink-side reporter. Suzy Kolber and Terry Crisp will anchor the pre-game and between-periods shows.

Fox will air the first two games of the Dallas-Buffalo series tonight and Thursday, as well as Games 5 and 7, if necessary. ESPN will get Games 3, 4, and 6.


Quick hitters

Three cheers to Gerry Sandusky for conducting a discussion on the connection between religion and sports last Thursday on his WBAL (1090 AM) talk show. It's nice to hear some talk other than the standard wins and losses stuff, and Sandusky does it better than anyone else in town.

ABC took some hits for its Kentucky Derby coverage, but its Belmont work Saturday was on the money, from the moving pictures of jockey Chris Antley's tears to as full a coverage of Charismatic's ankle injury as 20 minutes would allow, save for Lesley Visser's silly "How do you feel?" query to Bob Lewis, Charismatic's owner.

ESPN and the Southeastern Conference are hooking up on an eight-year contract extension that will take their deal to 2009 for coverage of football as well as men's and women's basketball.

Ladies night

Lifetime, which bills itself as "television for women," has an intriguing sports doubleheader Thursday night, covering two of the big-name sporting events for women this summer.


At 8 o'clock, the channel begins its third season of WNBA telecasts with live coverage of the Orlando Miracle-Houston Comets season opener. Michele Tafoya returns as lead play-by-play announcer and will be flanked by Reggie Miller, just as soon as the Indiana guard is done in the NBA playoffs.

After the game, the channel will present a half-hour introduction to the women's World Cup participants in the latest of its recurring "Breaking Through" specials.