NHL Lockout May Ice ESPN2, FSN

As expected, the National Hockey League board of governors voted Wednesday to approve a lockout of the circuit’s players -- a move that will shut down training camps and threaten the start of the 2004-05 season and the schedules of national carrier ESPN and regional sports proponent FSN.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association expired at midnight. The entrenched sides have been loggerheads over players costs, with the league insisting upon a hard salary cap and the players steadfastly opposed.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, during a Webcast of a New York press conference announcing the work stoppage, said NHL clubs had lost $1.8 billion over the past 10 years under the current collective-bargaining agreement, which has seen the league’s average player salary rise to $1.8 million over that span.

He added that more than 75% of league revenues are now allocated to player salaries.

With 20 clubs losing money last season, Bettman said the league is proposing a new contract under which more than 50% of dollars would be allocated to the players and yield average salaries of $1.3 million. He added that the viability of the game’s future demands “an enforceable, definable system in which revenues relate to expenses.”

Any delay to the season will disrupt schedules from national carrier ESPN2, which planned to initiate its 40-game regular-season slate with the Philadelphia Flyers visiting the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. (EST) Oct. 13.

A number of FSN-owned and affiliated networks were also scheduled to televise season openers that night.

ESPN vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro told the press at a recent symposium commemorating ESPN’s 25th anniversary that additional college-football and basketball games, National Basketball Association preseason games, ESPN Original Entertainment fare and poker programming could all fill in the gaps. He said ESPN would not turn to regular-season college hockey as a substitute.

In a recent interview, president Bob Thompson said FSN would take a somewhat different tack in replacing NHL games, including more runs of Best Damn Sports Show Period, encores of previously played NHL contests and more NBA games.

Other possibilities would include making some college-hockey games already scheduled on some of the regionals available to more of the services and perhaps acquiring some minor-league contests if the work stoppage becomes a protracted one.

NBC -- which is succeeding ABC as the league’s broadcast carrier -- won’t be impacted immediately, as its limited regular-season slate is not scheduled to begin until 2005.