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OLN Skates After NHL

8/12/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

The National Hockey League may soon provide a hip check to the Tour De France and Professional Bull Riding as OLN’s marquee ratings draw.

The Comcast Corp.-owned Outdoor Life Network is close to securing a two-year, $100 million agreement to carry NHL regular season and playoff games, according to sources. The league is returning to play a year after canceling its 2004-05 season due to a labor dispute.

Sources close to the situation say the deal could be announced as early as this week. For its investment, sources said, OLN could score a pair of weekly regular-season games, likely on Monday and Tuesday, one of which would benefit from network exclusivity. The service, which reaches nearly 64 million homes, would also net the national rights to the majority of the NHL playoff games, including the first two contests of the championship Stanley Cup Finals.

Other sources suggest the deal could also open the door to Comcast’s involvement with a dedicated NHL channel in the U.S., a replica of the service the circuit already runs in Canada.

Through a revenue-sharing pact, NBC is the NHL’s other national partner in the States, holding rights to a handful of regionalized regular-season contests, some playoff contests and five games of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Sources within the NHL and Comcast camps dismissed a published report in Friday’s St. Paul Pioneer Press that ESPN, the league’s longtime national cable home, would match OLN’s offer and retain the NHL for another two years.

ESPN, which earlier this year passed on a $60 million option to secure rights for this season, said it still has a “matching right and remain[s] interested in continuing our relationship with the NHL.”

At press time, sources close to the respective parties said the deal, which still has to be approved by the Board of Governors, had yet to be presented to ESPN. Once that happens, ESPN has five days to either match the price or propose a better deal to the league, according to sources.

Representatives from the NHL, OLN and Comcast all declined to comment on the matter.

While the NHL’s national cable rights will likely land with OLN or be retained by ESPN, other networks including Turner Network Television and Spike TV remain interested in the package. A source from one of the networks, though, said that OLN’s proposed $50 million a year offer was “above and beyond” what it was willing to pay for.

NFL INTEREST

If the deal is consummated, it would raise OLN’s stature within the sports-TV landscape. A move into the “stick-and-balls” arena, though, would mark a departure for OLN, which largely focuses on programming related to outdoor and adventure sports.

Along with the initial curiosity surrounding hockey’s return, the league is hoping that several rule changes, including less equipment for goaltenders and the elimination of the red line will boost ratings by creating a more exciting, faster-paced game for fans to watch.

Meanwhile, speculation persists about Comcast taking a run at a late-season Thursday/Saturday night package of National Football League games, which it has already said it has interest in acquiring.

The NFL won’t settle on details of the eight-game, late-season cable package prior to Labor Day, nor is it hearing pitches from interested programmers, including Comcast and TNT. The NFL could also award the package to its own upstart NFL Network.

“The real prize [of the NHL acquisition] is the threat that Comcast would pose for the Thursday-Saturday NFL package,” said Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell.

Many market watchers believe Comcast could use a puck-and-pigskin play to convert OLN into a national sports network.

However, Comcast Corp. and CEO Brian Roberts, during a conference call earlier this month to discuss the cable giant’s second-quarter results, noted that the goal is to improve OLN, and not to establish a national sports service that would go head-to-head against ESPN.

RATINGS RISE

At a minimum, the NHL would likely boost OLN’s ratings, particularly in April and May, when most of the playoff games air.

Ratings for national regular-season NHL games are not spectacular — ESPN and ESPN2 averaged a 0.5 household rating (20 regular season games) and a 0.2 mark (50 games), respectively, during the 2003-04 season, with playoff telecasts only slightly better. Still, those numbers compare well with OLN’s 0.2 primetime household rating last year.

Even at its ratings pinnacle during last month’s Tour de France coverage, the network only averaged a 0.3 primetime rating in July.

“The NHL represents tonnage for the network and it still gets better ratings than most OLN programming,” Mansell said.

Along with the Tour and Pro Bull Riding, the network also holds cable rights to the Boston Marathon, the recently acquired America’s Cup yacht race and the Association of Surfing Professionals tour.

The network, which this year also dipped its toe into reality syndication with Survivor, also owns the extreme-sports competition the Gravity Games.

Mike Reynolds contributed to this story.

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