Fox Sports Coping With NHL Strike

As the fate of the 2004-05 National Hockey League season should be known shortly, Fox Sports Net and its affiliate regional sports services have adjusted well to the lockout to date, particularly on the financial side.

At press time, a number of published reports pegged Jan. 14 as the day the NHL’s board of governors could vote to pull the plug on the entire campaign. Thus far, despite the loss of hundreds of NHL games due to the league owners and players dispute over salaries, Fox Sports Net president Bob Thompson said most of its more than 20 owned and affiliated regional sports networks have not suffered major ratings declines in the absence of pro pucks.

For the most part, the networks have compensated for the loss of the NHL by adding more National Basketball Association games and college football and basketball telecasts, Thompson said.

“It’s always disappointing not to have one of our three big sports, especially in markets such as Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis that are very strong NHL markets,” Thompson said. “We miss it from a product standpoint, and some markets miss it from a ratings standpoint.”

But from a financial standpoint, Thompson said Fox has benefited from the lockout because it doesn’t have to pay the teams for lost games. He added that the lack of NHL rights payments have countermanded increased rights fees in several markets this year to some extent.

For example, Fox Sports Southwest anted up a reported $600 million to secure multi-year cable rights to Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros and the NBA’s Houston Rockets, while teaming with Fox Sports South to reach a multiyear, multimillion dollar pact to acquire basketball’s Memphis Grizzlies cable rights.

In addition, Fox Sports Rocky Mountain will pay baseball’s Colorado Rockies a reported $20 million a year through 2014 as part of a major TV deal reached this past summer which also included minority ownership in the team. The deal keeps the Rockies from following basketball’s Denver Nuggets and hockey’s Colorado Avalanche to market competitor Altitude Sports and Entertainment Network, which launched two months ago.

“From a financial standpoint, clearly it’s a net benefit not having to pay the rights fees,” Thompson said. Fox Sports Net officials said it is “premature” to talk about any potential operator rebates until the status of the NHL season is determined.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.