The Buffalo Sabres have declined to exercise their $1 million option to break their contract with Adelphia Communications to televise their games next season.
The National Hockey League team now awaits the cable operator's decision whether to televise the games on its own Empire Sports Network or disband the channel and make a deal with another regional sports network that is carried on Adelphia's system.
The Sabres had until today to pay $1 million to break the deal, for which they will be paid about $6.5 million per year over the next four seasons. The rights fee Adelphia paid was so high that it isn't at all surprising that no regional sports channel wanted to match it.
"I told Adelphia that we will not exercise the option to terminate," Larry Quinn, the team's managing partner, said Monday.
Adelphia's handsome rights fee has become a bigger financial burden now that Time Warner affiliates in Syracuse, Binghamton and Rochester have put Empire on a pay sports tier or plan to put it on a digital tier. The moves from basic cable to the tiers substantially reduce the number of subscribers Empire has and therefore cuts the revenues it receives from advertising and subscriber fees.
Tom Haywood, vice president of area operations for Adelphia, declined comment on a published report in Rochester that said the Time Warner system in that city plans to put Empire on a digital tier by the end of July.
If Empire is put on digital cable in Rochester, it undoubtedly would displease the Sabres, whose new owner, B. Thomas Golisano, is from that city. The Sabres want to increase their visibility in Rochester, not reduce it.
Haywood wasn't revealing much about Adelphia's plans, apparently fearful that any public comment about negotiations could harm the ongoing talks with parties he wouldn't identify.
"We're talking with several individual companies about distribution of the Sabres," said Haywood. "We feel confident the Sabres game will be seen by Adelphia subscribers in the Western New York area."
Understandably, Empire employees aren't quite as confident about their futures. Chris Brown, who recently moved to Empire from WGR-AM to cover the Bills, leaves the station Thursday after taking a job with a relatively new football-centered publication.
According to sources, Adelphia's options include putting the games on Empire and continuing the homegrown regional sports network for a year to see how things would work as cable's relationship with the sports industry changes locally and nationally.
Another option would be to make a deal with a regional sports network such as YES or MSG by paying them the same subscriber fee it pays its own Empire to carry the games. Adelphia would pursue this option if it believed it would save money by disbanding Empire. This option also would allow it to keep the advertising revenue for the Sabres games to offset part of its rights fee.
A third option, which sources say might meet resistance from the Sabres, would be to put the games on a local access channel available on its systems. A fourth option would find Adelphia and Time Warner finding a creative way to make both sides happy in some sort of compromise.
It is unclear when Adelphia will make its decision. While the Sabres had today's termination deadline, Adelphia's only deadline really is the start of the National Hockey League season.
Adelphia, however, would clearly help its advertising sales for the games if it made its decision sooner rather than later.
Quinn will wait until Adelphia decides what to do before he addresses the radio situation. The games presently are simulcast on WNSA-FM, which also is an Adelphia station. However, the future of that station is tied to Empire.