Adelphia Communications will shut down the Empire Sports Network in early March and replace it with the NFL Network in its cable lineup.
Thirty employees of the West Seneca-based regional sports network were laid off Wednesday, and six others will continue to work at Empire as it winds down. The switch to the NFL Network begins March 7.
Empire is best known for showing Buffalo Sabres games. Adelphia has reached an agreement with the Sabres to shift those games to the MSG Network, pending the approval of a bankruptcy court judge, said Tom Haywood, Adelphia's area vice president, who oversees Empire.
The Sabres are inactive due to the National Hockey League lockout.
Haywood said Adelphia regretted having to close Empire. But he said the cable company had a responsibility to the bankruptcy court and to its customers to stem losses, and buyout offers it received were "not viable" to keep the network running.
"We have been losing millions and millions of dollars at Empire," Haywood said.
The Buffalo News reported earlier this month that Adelphia had rejected a $17 million offer for Empire from a group led by Buffalo native Joshua Pollack.
Adelphia has told Empire employees that the network would be losing $10 million a year if the Sabres were playing, because of the rights fee of about $9 million it pays to the Sabres. The cable company also contended that the Pollack-led proposal would have been "worse than the status quo" because of requirements in it, but did not elaborate on the requirements.
County Executive Joel A. Giambra said he was disappointed with Adelphia's decision, particularly after it was offered $17 million for the network.
"I don't understand how you could reject a $17 million bid and then shut it down," Giambra said.
Empire debuted at the end of 1990, covering pro, college and high school sports. Over the past couple of years, Empire's stable of on-air staffers and freelancers had been reduced due to cost cutting. The NHL lockout created a void in Empire's programming.
The network's finances were also dealt a blow last fall when Time Warner dropped Empire's remaining sports programming from its digital cable tier in the Syracuse, Rochester and Binghamton markets, reducing its visibility.
Bob Koshinski, who joined the network in 1991, called the planned shutdown "a sad day and the end of an era."
"I think Empire created a niche for itself in the community," said Koshinski, who has served as vice president and general manager for the past five years. "Over the past decade, we probably became something that people grew up with."
The company gave employees a list of other job openings with Adelphia, and invited employees to come back to dub videotapes of their work as they seek other jobs, Haywood said.
Adelphia already carries some local sports events on its "local origination" channel, and will continue to do so.
He stressed that Adelphia still has 1,700 employees in the region, and that the company remains "very committed" to Western New York.
The NFL Network, which will replace Empire, offers viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the National Football League. Haywood noted that in most markets, the NFL Network is available strictly through a cable system's digital service. Here, he said, subscribers to Adelphia's "classic" service will also receive it.