The Mighty Ducks take on the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference finals beginning tonight, but some local Ducks fans won't be watching it on television.
They can't -- unless they get OLN.
The cable network, whose contract with the NHL gives it exclusive broadcasting rights throughout this best-of-seven series, reaches only 49% of the cable TV households in the greater Los Angeles market, which includes Orange County.
Bill Padian of Torrance is among the disgruntled fans.
"You believe this is a way to market a product that is already the most ignored sport in the U.S.?" he said in an e-mail that he also sent to the Ducks. "If this was the Lakers, Laker fans would go berserk and the team and the league would both be in court facing an injunction."
How many fans might be left in the dark isn't certain.
OLN is available with DirecTV and can be purchased by Dish Network customers as part of a premium package. The cable giant Comcast, which owns OLN, and Time Warner make the network available to most of their customers as part of a basic package. But other companies -- Adelphia, Charter and Cox among them -- generally offer OLN only on a digital tier for a higher monthly fee. For example, if a Cox subscriber upgrades to digital, the additional cost is $9.50 a month.
Ducks senior vice president Bob Wagner isn't happy about this.
"We support the NHL and its broadcast effort, but this is frustrating for us and our fans and we are sorry for the inconvenience," he said. "Our goal is to expose this franchise to the entire market."
If the Ducks advance, OLN again has exclusive rights to broadcast the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals. The remaining games will be televised by NBC. For this upcoming round, NBC has rights only to Saturday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference series between the Buffalo Sabres and the Carolina Hurricanes.
Yet in Buffalo, which faced the same OLN predicament, Adelphia on Thursday agreed to move OLN from a digital tier to a package available to all customers. According to SportsBusiness Daily, Adelphia estimates that only 10% of its roughly 300,000 customers there subscribe to its digital tier.
Gavin Harvey, president of OLN, defends the network's right to exclusive telecasts.
"Exclusivity helps build the value of the network," Harvey said. "We want to grow right along with the NHL, and the league understands what we're trying to do. We are committed to hockey, and for our rookie season I think we have shown progress.
"We are available, it's just that for some subscribers it means upgrading to digital."
According to Harvey, OLN has grown by 6 million subscribers since the start of the NHL season and is closing in on 70 million. A breakdown of the number of OLN subscribers in the greater Los Angeles market was not immediately available.
Another 6 million is good news to OLN, given that it was launched in 1994 as the Outdoor Life Network, became best known for televising the Tour de France, changed its name to OLN last July and will change it again in September to Versus.
Meanwhile, FSN West or FSN Prime Ticket, which have much wider distribution in the Los Angeles market than OLN and broadcast most of the Ducks' regular-season games, will provide postgame shows throughout the Ducks-Oilers series.
Doug Perlman, the NHL's senior vice president in charge of television and new media, points out that, in the past, the national cable carrier also had exclusivity during the conference finals and Stanley Cup finals.
But that carrier was ESPN, which is available in almost all of the Los Angeles market's 4 million cable/satellite households. FSN West boasts the same number. Overall, the market has 5.5 million TV households, with 56% wired for cable and 25% having satellite service. Some homes have both.
Perlman, in defending OLN's exclusivity, said the league must respect its television partner's wishes because, as with any cable network, exclusivity not only increases the number of viewers but also drives distribution.
"You have to look at the deal in its entirety," he said. "OLN is establishing itself as the home base for hockey and is offering six hours of coverage a night."
Exposure is what the NHL needs more than anything after the lockout that wiped out last season. ESPN at one point was willing to give the NHL the exposure it needed, but offered a rights fee of only about $40 million a year after passing on an option to renew at $60 million a year.
OLN, seeking to broaden its sports identity, offered more money.
A deal was reached last August in which parent company Comcast agreed to pay a rights fee of $65 million for this season and $70 million for next season. If the number of OLN subscribers passes 80 million nationally -- it now stands at 63.4 million -- the rights fee would increase by $15 million. A third season, which would be at OLN's option, calls for a rights fee of at least $72.5 million.