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Hockey's Hard Times

As Calgary and Tampa get ready to face off over the National Hockey League's coveted Stanley Cup, the sport just isn't feeling like a winner. In fact, after suffering through dismal ratings last year, ABC is pulling out once either team rings victorious.

Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ESPN will continue to broadcast some games, but the NHL has signed General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) NBC to a revenue-sharing deal that will bring the league much less than the $120 million in rights fees it generated from its pact with ABC.

Make no mistake -- TV exposure matters. That's why the Arena Football League had no problem swallowing its pride when it cut a deal with NBC to air its games with no money up front. For less popular sports, revenue sharing is the sober substitute to the NFL's escalating ticket prices and player salaries.

Of course, NBC's thrifty ways have backfired before. All one has to do is go back to its XFL handshake with World Wrestling Entertainment (NYSE: WWE  ) -- a bust if ever there was one. However, it seems as if the prudent approach is working these days. Last week, the network committed itself to continuing to broadcast arena football games through 2006.

Pro sports is still a power play -- only now the networks have the advantage. Even in the realm of satellite radio, where Sirius (Nasdaq: SIRI  ) has the NHL broadcasting rights over rival XM Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: XMSR  ) , Sirius is far behind in lining up new subscribers.

Like a game-tested puck, hockey's been getting banged around. At its best, it's a beautiful sport, blending brutality with finesse. Now, the league must score with the game's dwindling audience.

What do you think about the state of hockey's popularity? Are you excited about Calgary and Tampa? What will happen with the league next year? Discuss all this and more on the Hockey Fans Board. Only on

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz can't vouch much for the prospects of his local Florida Panthers team next season. He owns shares in Disney.

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