A MURDOCH SLAP SHOT

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Thanks to Major League Baseball's urge to self-destruct, TV sports advertisers have been confronted by canceled games, demolished TV ad buys and the sense things might never be quite the same for the national pastime or for TV sports buying.

That's just the climate Rupert Murdoch seems to like.

Tentative Mr. Murdoch is not. He's already bet big to snare a proven ratings-getter, the National Football League's NFC games. Now he's been back at the TV sports wagering table. This time he's bet far fewer dollars than in his NFL raid, but his prize is anything but a surefire winner: It's the National Hockey League. CBS, for example, dropped out of the bidding for the five-year NHL package when the gap between it and Mr. Murdoch's Fox Sports was only $5 million-less than 4%.

We like Mr. Murdoch's chances. Baseball today is bleeding, a season of high drama squandered, but NHL hockey just might be emerging from a long wilderness of low viewer interest.

If the NHL's own festering labor troubles don't kill its momentum, Mr. Murdoch and NHL execs should make a great team. Hockey will be no also-ran at Fox Sports, not when it's one of the Murdoch team's crown jewels as Fox works overtime to establish itself with sports fans and advertisers. Together with national exposure on ESPN, the other NHL network rights holder, NHL hockey will have two solid platforms for building broader fan interest.

Given smart promotion and presentation, hockey's appeal to the age 18-to-34 group won't long be lost on advertisers. From its present low standing among TV sports, a little future success can go a long ways.

Meanwhile, mired in Mudville, Major League Baseball's collapse is all the more tragic when compared with hockey's brighter prospects. Clearly, no labor settlement can soon sweeten the sour taste this baseball strike has left behind among fans and advertisers.

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