ESPN Dumps Rights to NHL Games

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The National Hockey League’s cable television future is in as much doubt as its upcoming season, as ESPN last Tuesday officially said goodbye to the league by refusing to pick up an option for the 2005-06 season.

With uncertainty about the league’s future due to its year-long labor dispute, the 24-hour sports network refused to pick up a $60 million option on its current one-year deal. The league cancelled its 2004-05 season due to the dispute and is considering pulling the plug on the 2005-06 season as well. 

NHL MADE CHOICE

“Looking at the future today, we envision next year coming and going without any NHL product,” ESPN executive vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro said. “The [NHL] could have done a deal today for a lesser rights fee or a true revenue-sharing deal [similar to the league’s deal with broadcast network NBC], and they chose not to do that.”

By skating past the NHL, ESPN has relinquished its unprecedented hold on TV rights to all four major U.S.-based sports leagues. The network’s $851 million Major League Baseball deal expires at the end of this season, while its $2.4 billion National Basketball Association agreement runs through 2008. Last month, the network paid $8.8 billion for rights to Monday Night Football telecasts through 2014.

Shapiro, however, would not rule out the NHL’s return to ESPN once its labor dispute is completed, but the league would only be able to command a much lower rights fee at best. “We’re not there at $60 million,” he said. “They would have to be well south of that for us to run the gamut again.”

But NHL vice president of media relations Frank Brown said in a statement that the league had no interest in “further devaluating” the product by taking a rights revenue cut, adding that a potential long-term work stoppage was factored into the $60 million option.

“We have enjoyed a long history with ESPN and we appreciate the network’s continued interest in our product,” he added.

Shapiro said it will be difficult for the league to secure any television revenue for its product until it rectifies its labor dispute. Yet that hasn’t stopped other cable networks from talking to the league: sources said Spike TV has had recent discussions with the league about reaching a revenue-sharing cable-rights arrangement.

Spike officials would not comment on the matter.

Fox Sports Net and Turner Sports said it would be unlikely that either network would pick up national NHL cable rights. “We love our regional approach to the NHL,” said a FSN spokesman. “If an economically viable national package were presented to us, we would certainly take a look at it.”

Turner Sports president David Levy said in a statement: “We’ve looked at it in the past, and have not found a financial model that would work for us.”

EOE REPLACEMENTS

As for ESPN, Shapiro said the network will replace NHL programming with additional college football and college basketball games, as well as original movies and other content from its ESPN Original Entertainment arm, although he ruled out any new scripted-series launches.

Similar replacement programming averaged around a 0.7 rating — the same rating as live NHL regular-season and playoff-game telecasts. “At the same time, we were able to retain all of the ad sales dollars that had been previously committed to the NHL,” Shapiro said.

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