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Jury out on Sabres, NBC deal

Even though the Buffalo Sabres are fighting for the Presidents' Trophy as the top regular season team in the National Hockey League, NBC didn't put them on the game of the week until Sunday's finale with Philadelphia.

But Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn isn't joining the conspiracy theorists who see a bias against small market teams.

"I don't think that NBC has a bigger market bias," said Quinn. "[NBC] thought Buffalo would have been a great draw in the finals last year and a very compelling story."

Quinn is optimistic that things could change next season under the terms of a new deal between the NHL and NBC. NBC will have a "flexible schedule" for hockey that NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said in a release "will always allow us to have the best possible games. Nothing could be better for hockey fans, who now will be able to see the best teams and marquee players on national broadcast television each week."

We'll see if the flex schedule means the best teams or the best teams in the bigger markets and if Quinn is being overly optimistic. NBC's regular season schedule of nine games next season will have one game of the week instead of this year's regional broadcasts.

NBC has to be impressed by Buffalo's TV ratings. The Sabres' win over Pittsburgh Tuesday to clinch the Eastern Conference title had an incredibly strong 12.2 rating here on Versus even though it was competing for separate hours with "American Idol" (16.9) and "Dancing with the Stars" (11.4).

NBC executives have said their network made money on the revenue sharing deal it had with the NHL in 2005-06 and will again this season even though it is only averaging about a 1 rating nationally.

The NHL also made a new six-year deal with CBC that various Toronto outlets have called "the richest deal in the history of Hockey Night in Canada." It is believed to be in the $90 million to $100 million (Canadian) range annually, substantially higher than the $55 million to $60 million being paid annually now.

*To those who asked, MSG will carry all the games in the first two rounds of the playoffs that NBC isn't airing. That assumes the Sabres advance past the first round. Versus may do some games but wouldn't have exclusivity. Versus and NBC share the games after the first two rounds, meaning Rick Jeanneret and Jim Lorentz are exiled to radio. Versus will carry between 15 and 20 games in the first round, about the same number in the second round and between six and 12 games in the conference final. It gets the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals, NBC the rest.

*The Yankees are going, going, gone from WGR-AM radio. And programmer Andy Roth makes a pretty good case for dropping the most popular major league baseball team in Western New York. Roth, a native of New York City, said the Yanks were dropped because of low ratings last summer, a decision to use the money saved to hire producers-talk show hosts Dan Hager and Nick Mendola and the inevitable conflicts that are expected to arise during the Sabres' Stanley Cup playoff run.

"I'm a Yankee fan," said Roth, "I wish we could put them on. It is not what the [WGR] fans want."

He noted that last summer the station was fourth in the morning and afternoons with its target audience, men age 25-54, and fell to 10th in the evening when the Yanks were carried.

Roth added that the Yanks' relatively new TV channel, YES, has chased away Yankee fans from radio.

"They program that station so well, they've started to overcome radio," said Roth. "People turn on YES to get Yankee news, not a Buffalo sports station."

*It won't be long before ESPNU lands on Time Warner after the cable company and Disney, which owns all the ESPN channels, announced an agreement involving all of Disney's channels. A Time Warner spokesperson said ESPN U could arrive here well before the college football season begins.

*The 8.3 rating that Channel 4 received for Florida's NCAA tournament title win over Ohio State was slightly higher than the 7.9 rating the station received a year ago when Florida beat UCLA for the title. However, it wasn't close to the 12.2 national rating.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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