Hockey Skates Its Own Trail

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As Major League Baseball owners ratified the league's “Extra Innings” out-of-market package deal with In Demand and individual cable operators last week, cable companies were in the midst of negotiations with the National Hockey League for rights to distribute its “NHL Center Ice” pay package.

Cable carriage talks are also underway for a 24-hour NHL Network, showing live games and classic content and currently on cable lineups in Canada.

But it doesn't appear the hockey league is following Major League Baseball's lead and seeking NHL Network distribution by linking it to continued access to the $149 subscription Center Ice package of out-of-market games.

MLB successfully linked carriage of a planned MLB Channel to renewal of its “MLB Extra Innings” out-of-market subscription package.

The MLB Channel is expected to launch in 2009 with a subscriber base of more than 40 million, and the league claims carriage deals were obtained with 36 distributors, including DirecTV.

In Demand and league representatives confirm they've held talks to renew distribution of Center Ice; the current pact ends after the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The package provides access to about 40 regular-season hockey games per week from outside the viewer's home area, plus some first- and second-round playoff games.

But cable executives said that so far at least, initial discussions for a Center Ice renewal have remained separate from talks about the NHL Network, or about a planned high-definition NHL service. NHL executives would not comment on the negotiation strategy.

Major League Baseball effectively reached distribution deals for the MLB Channel by tying them to Extra Innings carriage deals with DirecTV and In Demand's cable-operator owners, Cox Communications, Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Cablevision Systems has joined In Demand's owners in carrying the package, but other operators, including Insight Communications, have passed, as has the Dish Network satellite-TV service. DirecTV has a carriage deal for Extra Innings and the MLB Channel.

The NHL has at least one strike against it: It lacks baseball's broad U.S. appeal. Its popularity is “in select Northern tier markets, so I don't think it has the same leverage as baseball or the other pro sports,” said John Mansell of John Mansell Associates in Great Falls, Va.

“A lot will depend on the pricing [of the package], but it would be a tough sell,” Mansell said.

Subscriber totals for the current season were not available, but Center Ice averaged about 235,000 subscribers during the 2005-06 season, according to Kagan Associates. That trailed similar out-of-market packages from MLB, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.

Last week, baseball owners formally blessed the seven-year Extra Innings/MLB Network contracts during meetings in New York, a baseball spokesperson said.

MLB first struck a $700 million deal with DirecTV that was supposed to give the top U.S. satellite-TV provider exclusive rights to Extra Innings and equity in the MLB Channel. But after consumers complained about losing Extra Innings on cable — and members of Congress joined the chorus — baseball opened the door to a deal with In Demand's owners that also gave those operators 17% equity in MLB Channel.

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