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Could TV deals save NHL fans from prolonged labor lockout?

Greg Wyshynski
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The opening salvo of the NHL's collective bargaining with the NHLPA has sufficiently scared the crap out of fans hoping there won't be a work-stoppage next season.

True, 'tis but the first proposal in a negotiation; but the cards on the table indicate the two sides have significant work to do, and significant concessions to make (well, at least the players will).

The one thing you keep hearing from the optimists is that there's just too much at stake and too much positive momentum for the NHL to [expletive] this up now. Pessimists (raises hand) would point out that yes, the League and its players are generating record revenues ($3.3 billion) that continue to exponentially grow each season … which is precisely why the owners want a larger percentage of them.

If revenue shares are the battle, the war's likely going to be waged through the preseason and into the regular season. Then it becomes a question of what will end the stalemate, and when.

Which is why Thanksgiving has been bandied about in the hockey world as a feast for starving fans, and the end of a potential lockout — because that's when NBC's schedule starts, that's when HBO starts its "24/7" build-up and, in the end, television rules the world and dictates terms in the NHL.

Just like it may have in 1995.

Bruce Dowbiggin of the Globe and Mail notes that the NHL has much more at stake in its television partnerships than in 2004-05.

The OLN/VERSUS deal wasn't struck until after the lockout; now, the NHL has a $2 billion deal through 2021 with NBC's cable networks and broadcast mothership. NBC was in a "no fee" contract with the League back in 2004; now, it has tent-pole events like the "Thanksgiving Showdown" on Black Friday and, of course, the Winter Classic — a event whose revenue-generating appeal spreads all the way to cable and pay cable on HBO.

From Dowbiggin:

For that series to go as planned, filming must start in late November or early December. Losing the HBO connection would be a blow to the prestige the NHL has built of late with its new initiatives.

That's reminiscent of what happened in the 1994-95 lockout when Fox TV had paid a significant rights fee to start carrying games in January of 1995. The obligation to pacify its U.S. TV partner pushed the NHL to settle earlier than it wanted and, in some ways, created the conditions for the disastrous lockout 10 years later.

Let's climb into the DeLorean and travel back to 1994. (Flannel? Check. Ace Of Base CD? Check. Terrible, FOX-y opening? Check.)

In 1994, the NHL and FOX agreed on a 5-year, $155-million deal that put the League back on network TV for the first time since 1975. It was considered a strong move by the NHL, given FOX's young demographics, hip image and burgeoning relationship with the NFL.

And then the lockout hit, as the owners rejected a last-minute proposal from the players that sought to open the season sans a new CBA.

It would last 103 days, ending on Jan. 13, 1995, leaving fans with a truncated 48-game season. FOX's debut was supposed to be the All-Star Game, which was wiped out by the work stoppage. It also lost $2.7 million in rights fees from games that would have aired on ESPN and ESPN2 (a.k.a. The Deuce).

As a result, FOX was able to television hockey in the first year of its NHL deal, beginning on April 2 and then continuing with regional coverage until the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 3.

The NHL came out of the gate strong from a ratings perspective, with the Philadelphia Flyers' Legion of Doom leading the way. Part of the credit goes to the way FOX sold the game in the months leading up to their slate of games, according to Mike Bruton of Knight-Ridder in Feb. 1995:

These spots, which are being paid for by the network over and above the cost of broadcast rights, were planned for airing before the lockout occurred. Given the current owner-player climate in professional sports these days, Fox's intentions could be easily misunderstood.

But when the network came through to get promos of Philadelphia Flyers Eric Lindros, Ron Hextall, Mikael Renberg and Patrik Juhlin this week, the players cooperated freely and seemed to enjoy the work despite the numerous takes required to get things just right.

Fox's intent was to make these messages lighthearted and humorous, to help viewers see the players as everyday guys. With many sports fans angry at baseball players and owners, the NHL guys were more than happy to interact with the fans this way.

One assumes NHL players won't be the ones in need of image rehab in 2012 …

So in 1994-95, things were pretty good for the NHL. New TV deal. New York Rangers' Stanley Cup championship momentum. New deals with Nike and Anheuser-Busch as sponsors.

And the lockout still lasted 103 days.

Conventional wisdom is still that NBC, HBO and the League's Canadian TV partners -- as well as the sponsors -- are too important to allow a work stoppage to linger too long. We're all hoping wisdom wins out in this negotiation.

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