Fox Puckers Up For Hockey

High above the Madison Square Garden ice, in Rupert Murdoch’s skybox, a roar from the capacity crowd caused a half-dozen Fox Sports execs to freeze in conversation and lean forward en masse. Below, the New York Rangers were in the throes of a typical gloves-off hockey brawl. But the Fox programmers also were considering, with at least as much apprehension, their own risky future in the ice wars.

Fox, barely a year into its sports agenda, is about to try hockey on for size. For a record price of $31 million per season, the weblet on April 2 will begin a five-year campaign to thaw out hockey’s audience appeal and bring it further into the sports TV mainstream than it’s ever been. It’s a zone where others have failed before, or have feared to tread.

Hockey has been a comfortable and durable presence on cable, but so far, it’s had a negligible impact during broadcast network appearances. In the last two seasons, ABC put on 11 weekend afternoon National Hockey League games and averaged a 1.7 rating, with a high of 2.3. Before that, it was NBC carrying a handful of NHL telecasts – in 1975.

Fox, with a heavy accent on 18-34 audience demos in its programming slate, is attacking its hockey game plan (five Sunday afternoon regional regular-season telecasts, and up to nine playoff games) with the same jazzy, youth-friendly approach it brought to football last season. And hockey routinely registers the youngest fan base of all the major sports, according to industry research.

Though impressed with Fox’s fervor, media buyers and other sources are not even a little convinced that the weblet will be the first to elevate hockey’s submerged viewership numbers and put them on the national broadcast map, now or in the near future.

“Fox’s plan for promoting hockey, for its camera coverage, its graphics, all of it, is as good as it can get in this business,” said Paul Schulman, president of media buyer Paul Schulman Co. “But the question is, how many people can become hockey fans from watching it on TV? It’s very difficult to do a sport that always loses something on TV. I don’t think this will be a breakthrough for hockey.”

“It’s such an iffy property,” added Bruce Heim, director of network operations at ad agency BJKE/Bozell in New York. “They’ve been trying to educate people about hockey for years.”

Still, in terms of ad support, it’s been an encouraging start for Fox. Two weeks ago, about 70% of the ad inventory for the regular-season gamecasts had been sold, and a week later, 95% of the regular-season and playoff ad packages were gone, sources confirmed. Rates for 30-second spots have ranged from $25,000 to $35,000 for non-playoff games, and somewhere above $40,000 for the Stanley Cup playoffs, though several sources scoffed at Fox’s claim that rates for Stanley Cup games could go as high as $75,000.

And all the hoopla comes down to the fact that Fox is promising to deliver a rating in the neighborhood of a 2 for regular-season games, and somewhere around a 3.5 for playoffs.

The key for Fox – the virtual linchpin for the whole operation, sources insist – is the weblet’s ability to heavily promote hockeycasts during its primetime schedule, a window that’s never been open to hockey over the air. In the last two weeks, Fox’s marketing mavens have begun airing their new high-tech hockey promos during “The X-Files,” “The Simpsons” and other shows that score well in the young male demos.

“We can’t think traditionally here, because we’re starting with a 1.7 rating and we have nothing to lose,” said Fox Sports exec producer Ed Goren, a former senior producer at CBS Sports. “We have to be non-traditional.”

“The demographic marriage of Fox and the NHL is perfect,” said Glenn Adamo, the league’s VP of broadcasting. “We’ll just have to build on it.”

Fox has no illusions that it can ice Rome in a day. There’s no talk of vaulting hockey from virtual invisibility to stardom in a year, or even two.

“We are absolutely, positively in this for the long haul,” said Tracy Dolgin, Fox Sports exec VP for marketing, shouting to be heard above 18,000 Madison Square Garden hockey fans. “But nobody goes from a 2 to a 10 (rating). We think we’re on the ground floor of something unbelievable, and our job is to accelerate the growth. It’s evolutionary. We may take three steps this year, and 12 next year.”

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