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Panthers allow fans to get closer to the game


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It has been a harrowing year for hockey, but broadcasts are likely to change for the better.


In meetings this week, for example, the Florida Panthers will discuss putting microphones on coaches and players during regional cable broadcasts.


The changes are designed to work hand in glove with revised rules to promote more scoring ? shootouts instead of ties, for instance. It's part of a wider strategy to make the game come alive again at the rink and the living-room couch after the sport's deadest year in almost a century.


"It's more likely than not that you will see new technology in our games and that the product will be brought closer to the viewers," said Michael Yormark, chief operating officer of the Panthers. "Miking the players is one great example."


Executives from Fox Sports Net Florida, now under combined management with Sun Sports regional cable network, are expected to announce a slate of 70 to 75 Panthers games shortly. The dollars have not been announced, but they have not changed significantly in a resumed multi-year deal that has three seasons left, according to Panthers officials.


Expect to see more player profiles on network shows between games, said Cathy Weeden, vice president and general manager for the cable networks. The idea is to give viewers a way to identify with the human beings under the helmets.


"If you get some emotional contact with the players, you can get people to invest in the team," she said.


Dave Strader, who has been waiting a year to start his new job as TV play-by-play announcer for the Panthers, said he welcomes ideas such as putting a camera in the locker room between periods or interviewing a player between shifts. As with the NFL or NASCAR, not every mike may go over the air live.


"Some of it may have to be put to tape to make sure we're not getting something inappropriate for the family hour," Strader said.


Strader knows this much: He has had his fill of raking pine needles and washing windows.


Hockey's yearlong labor face-off allowed him to catch up on household chores, but he needed a pay advance from the team's broadcasters to make ends meet. He could not commit to more than piecemeal work.


"It was tough because for the first five months, we were on the edge of our seat thinking this thing would be resolved at any moment," Strader said. "It's been a very demanding time psychologically for everyone involved. I'm excited on a lot of levels."


One thing won't be completely new: Strader will team up with longtime Panthers color analyst Denis Potvin, with whom he has called playoff games on ESPN in recent years.


Radio will feature a mix of old and new. Steve "Goldie" Goldstein will pick up the play-by-play microphone on WQAM (560-AM) and affiliates, teaming with veteran analyst Randy Moller.


Similar "mike" ideas have been discussed for national broadcasts, but for franchises such as the Panthers, regional broadcasts are especially critical.


For example, the NHL's previous deal with ABC/ESPN produced only about $4 million annually per team, less than most teams got from regional contracts.


The current contract with NBC does not involve upfront money at all. Revenue will be shared by NBC and the league. NBC plans to carry seven regular-season contests, six playoff games and Games 3 through 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.


The league is still looking for a national cable deal. ESPN, TNT, Spike TV and USA Network have been mentioned as potential partners. ESPN is "open to listening to potential scenarios that have us both equally sharing any risk," a spokesman said Monday.


But the new deal helps teams such as the Panthers. For teams with payrolls in the $24 million to $32 million range, a 24 percent rollback in player costs yields a savings of between $6 million and $8 million, said Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis.


"Now that the game is trying to re-invent itself, perhaps the marketing departments from these teams stand a better chance to sell the team in each respective market," Rishe said.



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