Empire Sports Network
|Empire Sports Network|
Empire Sports logo
|Launched||31 December 1990|
|Closed||7 March 2005|
|Owned by||Adelphia Communications.|
|Broadcast area||Upstate New York|
|Replaced by||MSG Network
Time Warner Cable SportsNet
Empire Sports Network was a regional sports network on cable television which served upstate New York from Buffalo to Albany, parts of northern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The network ended its 15 years of service on March 7, 2005, at the hands of its parent company Adelphia Communications.
The network was the flagship station for Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League games, but also aired collegiate sports (particularly of Syracuse University), and several sports news and talk shows. Empire also aired a significant amount of programs covering the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League, live play by play of the Buffalo Destroyers of the Arena Football League, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National league, the Buffalo Bisons, Rochester Red Wings and Syracuse Chiefs of the International League AAA, AHL hockey, and NCAA basketball. Buffalo Bandits lacrosse also received limited coverage on the station. Games of the Toronto Raptors of the NBA also aired for several seasons until January 2005, when all original and live programming was canceled. In its latter years, the station also aired live Canadian Football League Friday Night Football games and on a tape delay Saturday mornings.
Some of Empire's programs included Fan TV, a daily two and a-half hour sports news and call-in program hosted by Howard Simon and Jim Brinson and its successor, The SimonCast, the Empire Sports Report, a nightly sportscast hosted by Mike DeGeorge, Josh Mora and Jason Bristol, and Hockey Hotline, the Sabres' postgame report hosted by NHL veteran Mike Robitaille and later with Brian Blessing. Other popular shows were Fan Forum with Bob Koshinski, which aired from 1991 to 1998 and Pros and Cons (a predecessor to Pardon the Interruption that featured WGRZ-TV's Ed Kilgore pitted against contrarian and WGR radio host Art Wander, with The Buffalo News sports editor Larry Felser moderating), which ran from 1992 to 1996. Former Bills punter and ESPN NFL analyst Paul Maguire also hosted the Budweiser Sportsline on the network during the NFL season; current NHL announcers Pete Weber and Danny Gare also worked for Empire along with former Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker, now of CBS. The network also aired ECW Hardcore TV produced by Extreme Championship Wrestling, a now-defunct professional wrestling promotion based in Philadelphia.
Between October 2000 and March 2004, Adelphia Communications Corporation, under VP/GM Bob Koshinski, used Empire staff to operate radio station WNSA 107.7 FM in Wethersfield Township, NY. WNSA overtook WGR-AM as the radio ratings leader in the spring of 2001, but then experienced the loss of talent, including Mike Schopp to WGR when the Rigas/Adelphia scandal broke. The end of WNSA came when the station was sold to Entercom Communications in May 2004 for $10.3 million. Entercom turned it into classic rock "107.7 The Lake." Simon's show, however, would continue on WLVL 1340 in Lockport until November 2004, when he was recruited to host WGR's morning show.
Empire Sports thrived until March 2002 when the Adelphia bankruptcy scandal broke. With Adelphia Communications in freefall and under temporary bank-appointed management, Empire was unable to renew affiliate agreements in the fall of 2002 with Time Warner Cable, its largest non-Adelphia customer and the cable provider for nearly all of upstate New York. The network continued to operate, but was dealt another severe blow in 2003 when Adelphia's board of directors appointed a new chief executive officer, William Schleyer, and chief operating officer, Ron Cooper. Under their watch, Adelphia chose to shut down Empire Sports as opposed to selling it to several interested parties. No longer interested in being in the lucrative regional sports business, Adelphia laid off more than 30 full-time employees and all freelancers in the summer of 2003. The staff cuts forced Empire to eliminate the popular Fan TV but the network itself was still able to survive for another eighteen months.
The NHL lockout that would wipe out the entire 2004–05 NHL season served both as a blessing and a death blow. Financially the lockout actually benefited the network because it was not required to pay the Sabres its annual rights fee of $9.5 million a year. However, the Sabres had acted as a loss leader for Empire, and without them, the network had no core programming. Time Warner decided to drop Empire from its slate of cable packages in late 2004, leaving Empire only available in Western New York and the city of Utica, although it remained on the DirecTV and Dish Network sports tier packages across the country. (The network also streamed on the Internet from the time of the selloff of WNSA—when the station was sold, Empire merely switched the Internet stream from WNSA to Empire's feed—to its closing.) Howard Simon's radio/TV simulcast show was among the last local programs (other than the nightly sports report) that aired on the station.
Adelphia resisted offers from outside interests to purchase Empire, desiring instead to pocket the retransmission consent fees that would have gone to Empire's new owner had the network been sold off. Despite concerns from viewers and local political leaders, Adelphia chose to eliminate Empire altogether on January 19, 2005. All programming was replaced by a continuous tape loop, showing highlights from the network's history, before Empire finally signed off for good on March 7, 2005.
Adelphia itself was acquired by Time Warner Cable and Comcast which completed the asset transfer on August 1, 2006. CEO William Schleyer received a bonus of $15 million and COO Ron Cooper received $9 million as part of their compensation package from the re-structured Adelphia Board of Directors.
MSG Network currently holds Buffalo Sabres rights, though the broadcasts are still produced by the Sabres organization as they were during the days of Empire.
Syracuse University has an agreement with Time Warner Cable for extensive local coverage of its teams, the result of which was the creation of the sports channel Time Warner Cable SportsNet, which now covers most of Empire's old territory and operates out of Empire's old studios in West Seneca. Some of Empire's sports rights, such as the handful of Bisons games aired on the station, ended up on WNGS, before ending up back in Time Warner's hands after WNGS briefly ended up in the hands of a religious organization; WNGS, now rechristened as WBBZ-TV, has indicated it will make a greater push for sports rights now that it has been revived as a commercial, locally-owned station. (Indeed, WBBZ hired Koshinski as an executive producer in 2012.)
Rumors of Empire's revival had been spread in 2006 as the window for an "out clause" in the Sabres-MSG contract opened, combined with Time Warner Cable's acquisition of the Buffalo market, thereby uniting all of upstate New York under one cable provider. Those rumors, however, were squashed when a 10-year contract extension between the Sabres and MSG was announced. However, Time Warner's Time Warner Sports channel did eventually expand into the Buffalo market in November 2007.