MIAMI — After fumbling in the shadow of competitor Sunshine Network in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale-based SportsChannel Florida has experienced the Huizenga touch.

“When we took this channel over, it was on life support,” said Dean Jordan, president of SportsChannel owner Front Row Communications, and former VP of business operations for the Florida Panthers.

Panthers netted

Since sports baron Wayne Huizenga — who owns the Florida Marlins, the Miami Dolphins and the Florida Panthers — purchased 50% of the struggling sports servicel in February for an undisclosed amount, the state-oriented sports net has landed the broadcast rights to Florida Panthers games. Consequently, it’s been picked up by numerous cable systems, adding another million Florida subscribers.

In addition, during football season, Dolphin coach Jimmy Johnson and quarterback Dan Marino host weekly shows for SportsChannel. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a Major League Baseball expansion franchise, also signed a contract with SportsChannel that provides the option of purchasing a percentage of the net. And most recently, the Marlins agreed to air 35 of its games on SportsChannel in 1997 leaving 35 to air on Sunshine.

Previously, Sunshine had the broadcast rights to all 70 games. Sunshine still has the rights to the Orlando Magic, the Miami Heat and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Foul play?

The changes have some crying foul play. While SportsChannel executives insist Huizenga’s involvement has no bearing on the landing of the Marlins and Panthers TV deals, Sunshine general manager Jim Liberatore disagreed.

Liberatore referred to SportsChannel’s limited distribution in South Florida when the Panthers signed the deal with the net.

“When you got Mr. Huizenga who owns the SportsChannel and owns the team, there’s really not much you can do,” he said. “Mr. Huizenga didn’t buy SportsChannel to not carry the Marlins and the Panthers. It just cracks me up that they’re saying there’s a level playing field.”

SportsChannel now reaches a self-reported 2.3 million households, up from 1 million in February, compared with Sunshine’s self-reported 4.1 million homes.

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