The Bertuzzi Affair couldn't have come at a worse time for the NHL. The $600 million television contract the league signed with ABC and ESPN in 1999 expires after this season, and there's a better chance of the Stanley Cup finals outrating the Super Bowl than of a new deal coming anywhere near the dollars of the old one.
The NHL says other networks have shown interest, but currently it's talking seriously with just ABC and ESPN. A lack of suitors isn't the only reason why the league has no leverage. Last month's All-Star Game on ABC drew lower ratings than the Arena Football League. This season ESPN and ESPN2 scaled back from last year's 102 games to 71 to make room for its NBA coverage, and ESPN has seen regular-season NHL ratings tumble from a high of 1.2 in 1994-95 to 0.5 this season. "Overall I'm happy with our partnership," says George Bodenheimer, president of ABC Sports and ESPN. "But from a ratings perspective the sport has underperformed."
After a decade of unsuccessfully trying to promote the NHL on national television—remember Fox's glowing puck?—hockey still isn't must-see TV. The simple reason: Americans aren't Canadian. It's not just that the puck is hard to see. It's that casual viewers south of the border don't fully understand what they're watching. (And it doesn't help that scoring is near historically low levels.) The 30-team NHL, which has expanded or relocated into 11 cities in the U.S. since 1991, is still an embryonic presence in much of the country. "As a television product hockey is really in its start-up phase," says Jon Litner, the NHL's chief operating officer. The league is clinging to the hope that high-definition TV will help the myopic American audience see the game. "HDTV is a tipping point for us," says Litner. And the sport has one surprising demographic selling point. "Hockey has a more affluent, better-educated audience than any other major sport," says Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports.
Reduced national TV revenue might not be fatal, especially if the gate-driven league succeeds in reducing player salaries when the current labor agreement expires on Sept. 15. (The ABC/ ESPN deal netted teams only about $4 million per year.) But a watered-down deal would be perceived as yet another indication that the sport is a niche, not a national, pastime.