Michael Eisner Tries to Improve the NHL, An Excerpt From “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN”
June 1, 2011 7 Comments
The following is an excerpt from “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” the ridiculously addictive and well-composed history of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. Please not, for those unfamiliar with the tome’s style: all material in italics comes from the authors, everything else from the various interview subjects. The following passage is relevant to the network’s coverage of the NHL. All materials republished with permission of Little, Brown and Company:
For twenty-one years, ESPN and the NHL had played nicely together. That is, they happily entered into one agreement after another. In time, though, relations grew less chummy, in part because the Walt Disney Company, both as a right holder and owner of the Anaheim Ducks hockey team, was extremely frustrated that the league wasn’t doing enough to bolster lackluster TV ratings.
Hoping to get those numbers up, Michael Eisner had gone so far as to meet with NHL ownership and present them with ten ideas on how to have more viewers. (Among them: have players on the benches remove their helmets, so fans on TV could more clearly see their faces, thus making it easier for stars to be developed.) The owners refused to implement any of Eisner’s ideas, however, and that, coupled with the sizable losses ABC had incurred with its NHL deal, caused the Disney chief to throw up his hands in exasperation.
We always tried ways, so many different conversations, meetings; we wanted to improve the sport and it was really difficult. We wanted to do so many things that the NHL just said nope, nope, nope, nope, nope to. Access, interviews, cameras here, there. I prayed for linkage during the lockout. In other words, I wanted salaries to be linked to revenue. Because I knew if they were, then the players and the teams would have incentive to help us grow the sport. We felt like a network at ESPN trying to grow a sport without cooperation from the different constituents within the sport.
ESPN wasn’t entirely without blame for the NHL’s tensions. The network had totally screwed the NHL by booting its games off the mother ship and relegating them to ESPN2. In essence, the network had thrown the NHL under the proverbial bus to make room for the ESPN Original Entertainment lineup, which was so important to Shapiro and the network, and once the NHL was installed on ESPN2, ratings indicated that only friends and relatives were watching.
To make matters still worse for the NHL, ESPN was attempting to close a new and very costly deal with Major League Baseball, and Eisner, Iger, and Bodenheimer had agreed that they would not splurge on both hockey and baseball. Shapiro was directed to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and tell him the ugly truth: ESPN only had $30 million for the deal. Bettman was incredulous. Couldn’t ESPN take some money away from its deals with other leagues? Wasn’t there any way to come up with more cash? Shapiro’s response was a brutally honest “take it or leave it”: if Bettman said no to the $30 million, there would be no deal at all; this was not a negotiation. Bettman felt insulted by the puny offer and, in a huff, bade all the ESPN networks good-bye. He and hockey wound up limping over to the Outdoor Life Network, the sports network owned by cable giant Comcast.