Michael Eisner Tries to Improve the NHL, An Excerpt From “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN”

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. 

7 Responses to Michael Eisner Tries to Improve the NHL, An Excerpt From “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN”

  1. Stephen says:

    I brought that book earlier this week, and I burned it in my fireplace. I hate ESPN so much. Can’t wait until July when NBC Sports Channel begin airing on VERSUS.

  2. kevin says:

    I guess NHL owners actually have brains..take your helmet off on the bench? Eisner is too stupid to realize that the owners just wanted his money. Why else would they let him have a team called the Mighty Ducks. They really weren’t interested in his ideas. Thank god.

  3. Andrew says:

    I like the idea of making it optional for players to wear helmets during shootouts.

  4. Kevin says:

    Fuck ESPN.. I don’t watch their garbage anymore..

  5. Eric says:

    “For twenty-one years, ESPN and the NHL had played nicely together. That is, they happily entered into one agreement after another”

    … is just not true. The NHL left ESPN for a 4 year period (roughly 88-92). SportsChannel America carried the games–with much less distribution than Versus. HHOfer Jiggs McDonald called the Stanley Cup finals– Doc hosted the games in at least one of the years. Clement and JD were also involved.

    They were together about 12 years before the most recent break-up.

  6. kevin says:

    I agree I loath ESPN. Their radio is no better also. They should change their name to ESPNBA. kevin

  7. terry says:

    Much as everyone (myself included) likes to rip Bettman, it seems that all has worked out pretty well for him on the US television front. I was hoping that the “World Wide Leader” would not get involved in the new TV contract at all…I think it’s much better for the NHL to have it’s “own” television home where they are treated like number one.

    Between the TV deal and things like extorting a “relocation” fee from the Winnipeg group, I think that Gary is doing all right and owners are pleased. But that can change in a heartbeat if there are CBA problems in 2012.

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