Time Warner-FSN dispute leaves viewers in the cold

by Adam Fink

Barb Atherton has been lucky thus far. The mother of Minnesota’s men’s hockey freshman P.J. Atherton, Barb has not yet missed a chance to see her son compete at the collegiate level by attending home and road game or watching the team on television.

But when the Gophers travel to Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth in February, the Edina native will join many other Gophers fans in a limited club – those with no ability to see the team on cable television.

“She wants to watch every game,” P.J. said. “It’s terrible this thing can’t be resolved.”

The dispute, which began Jan. 1, 2003, involves Time Warner, the cable provider in Minneapolis and western and southwestern Minnesota and Fox Sports Net.

Time Warner pays $1.52 per customer to put the network in its cable package. Fox Sports Net wants an increase to $2.25 for each of the estimated 800,000 customers in the effected region.

The current view from both sides is that discussions have come to a standstill, with neither side willing to budge from their original demands.

“There is no indication either side is making much progress,” Fox Sports Net’s spokesman Greg Phillips said. “They have not given us many options to work with. It’s a shame for the fans.”

“We are doing everything we can to reach an agreement,” Time Warner’s Minnesota division leader Eric Brown said. “In the meantime, Time Warner will refund the fees we would have charged those customers.”

That is little consolation to the Gophers men’s hockey team and its fans, which is the University’s most affected squad.

This season, the Gophers schedule called for 25 regular season games on Fox Sports Net. Of those, nine have yet to be played. The network also produces “Pride On Ice,” a weekly half-hour show which features recaps, previews and insight into the team.

Other sports not televised in the blacked-out areas include two more Gophers women’s basketball games and the remaining schedules of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Wild. The Twins will also be affected next spring.

Gophers coach Don Lucia is not worried the reduced exposure of his squad will affect recruiting or the team’s image in the community.

Lucia said he hasn’t picked a side in the dispute; he declined a Fox Sports Net request for him to appear in a commercial addressing the situation.

“We want it settled,” the fourth-year coach said. “The reality is that it will eventually be resolved. It would just be nice if it was sooner rather than later.”

Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi doesn’t understand why it can’t be resolved soon. He is updated twice per week by each side.

“They aren’t even at the bargaining table,” Maturi said. “It’s difficult to resolve something if you aren’t even talking. We are at the frustration stage right now.

“They each share the latest information with me. Why can’t they do it with each other?”

Maturi has heard the complaints from fans, but brainstorming possible alternatives hasn’t yielded any solutions.

Maturi said there are no free tickets to give away – such as the Timberwolves did to fans for a game two weeks ago – and no legal issues they can take up with either side.

Just like Gophers fans in the affected areas, Maturi is forced to just wait and see how negotiations progress.

But Maturi has one idea on how to get Gophers hockey back on the Time Warner system.

“The demand has to come from the public,” the Chisholm, Minn., native said. “If Gophers fans voice their opinions, they can speed up the process. It’s just disappointing how long this has already gone on for.”

In the meantime, Barb Atherton might consider planning some more road trips.

ï Minnesota’s men’s hockey team departed Wednesday night for Alaska. The Gophers decided to fly out a day earlier than normal road games due to the time difference, weather conditions and the length of the flight.

The eighth-ranked Gophers (12-6-7, 7-4-5 WCHA) face Alaska-Anchorage in a weekend series beginning Friday night at 10:05 CST.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]