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March 26, 2004 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

UPDATED: Channel Surfing

Hockey Viewers Span the Dial Looking for NCAA Regionals

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

More college hockey games are available on television than ever before, but each season, the places viewers can turn to for NCAA regionals change, which can make things confusing.

This week, college hockey fans around the country have been scrambling to keep up with where they can watch the 12 regional games, as cable systems, networks and local cable channels add coverage. It's a patchwork of special set-aside stations on local cable systems, and television sports networks that may be available across a swath of systems and the satellite dishes.

Currently, a few markets with teams in the regionals don't yet have live television coverage of the tournament. The biggest such gap, though, was resolved Thursday in Minneapolis, when the Comcast, Charter and Time Warner cable systems agreed to carry some or all of Victory Sports' coverage at the NCAA regionals. Victory will broadcast 10 of the 12 games this weekend, eight of them live.

This is the second year that ESPN has held the rights to the complete NCAA hockey tournament. ESPN has broadcast the Frozen Four for years, but until last season, NCAA Productions produced the regionals and distributed them wherever it could. Last season, ESPN bought the rights, and through its ESPN Syndication arm, sells the games to whatever outlets are willing to pick them up.

"When ESPN entered into the new 11-year contract, they talked about wanting to activate earlier rounds of some of their 21 championships," said Chris Farrow, Manager of Broadcasting at the NCAA. "The women's volleyball quarters, wrestling semis, men's lacrosse quarterfinals and the Division I-AA quarterfinals are other championships with increased exposure. ... This year, they're going to activate all 12 regional hockey games and NCAA Productions won't have to worry about producing or programming the games.

"The more they can put on the early rounds, the better exposure there is for our championships and student-athletes."

Last season, ESPN distributed the games to both so-called Regional Sports Networks (RSNs) — such as NESN and all the Fox affiliates, like Fox North and Fox Sports Detroit — and local cable outlets, including in non-traditional college hockey areas, such as Tulsa, Okla., and Portland, Ore. As a result, 10 of the 12 games were available live and in full to owners of DirecTV.

This year, none of the games will be live on any of the Fox affiliates, meaning fewer games will be on the dish systems, and fewer on the far-reaching Fox Regional Sports Networks, which both penetrate most every cable home in their states and then some. Instead, the rights in Detroit were gobbled up by numerous local cable outlets, such as Comcast Flint, Comcast Lansing, Comcast Grand Rapids, and so on. And the rights in Minnesota were bought by Victory Sports, a new network owned by Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, and which is not yet widely available in the state of Minnesota.

The reason for lack of availability on Fox is not, however, related to ESPN's being in heavy competition with them, according to ESPN.

"We approached Fox Sports Net and offered to sell them the package of games for distribution and they declined," said Mike Humes, spokesperson for ESPN. "We sold the rights to Comcast Corporate, and they're sending to their local systems from there. ... In fairness to them, the agreement was done before the brackets were even announced. Part of this agreement includes multiple NCAA events."

This year, currently seven of the 12 games are available live on RSNs, with two joined in progress and two on tape delay. The only games not available at all on DirecTV will be the first Midwest semifinal between Minnesota and Notre Dame, and the second semfinal in the West between Miami and Denver. Both are on numerous local outlets, plus Victory, which will be picked up this weekend by Dish Network (see below). The entire Northeast Regional is live on RSNs and thus the dish.

As for local cable, currently, residents in the hometowns of Ohio State, Miami, North Dakota and Notre Dame do not have any systems picking up the games.

The Victory Sports issue was the most problematic, given that two-time defending champ Minnesota, plus Minnesota-Duluth, are in the same Midwest Regional. Local cable networks and satellite providers have been reluctant to add Victory to their lineup because they believe Victory is asking for too much money.

As a result, most people in the Twin Cities cannot regularly get Victory, which had jeopardized local TV coverage of the NCAA regionals until this week's resolution with Comcast, Charter and Time Warner. Dish Network had previously accepted Victory's offer. DirecTV rejected the offer, as did MediaCom. Smaller cable systems throughout the state are largely already carrying Victory, as is Midcontinent Communications in the Dakotas.

Despite the issues, this is the ninth time in the last 10 years that every NCAA regional game will be televised live somewhere. Only 2000 is excluded. According to Farrow, only men's and women's basketball can say the same thing.

All the games will also be available on C-Band to those with large satellite dishes.

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