NHL Cable Deal Is Still Slippery

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The National Hockey League is back in business after a one year hiatus, and several cable networks are lining up to take their shots at acquiring the league's national cable rights deal.

But with uncertainty over the long-term damage caused by the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, network executives are not willing to open the purse strings in an effort to acquire the package. The NHL, at press time, remains intent upon securing a rights fee.

CABLE NETS INTERESTED

With the players ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement on Thursday and the league's Board of Governors expected to follow suit Friday afternoon, Spike TV, Turner Network Television, Comcast Corp., NBC Universal's cable services and Fox Sports Net have all expressed interest in acquiring a national NHL package that ESPN walked away from earlier this year.

“There's definitely interest out there and we're talking to several outlets,” said an NHL spokeswoman, although she would not specify the parties.

Even ESPN, which offered NHL games during the 2003-04 season, has said it would reconsider a bid for the NHL — but at nowhere near the $60 million option the network passed on in May.

“We're not opposed to a rights fee, we're willing to do a deal commensurate and more reflective to the value of the NHL,” said spokeswoman Diane Lamb.

In fact, sources at most of the networks expressed a preference to secure a league television deal similar to NBC's two-year, revenue sharing broadcast agreement, which gives it rights to a handful of regionalized regular-season contests, some playoff contests and five games of the Stanley Cup Finals championship series.

But the league has said that it has no interest in further devaluating its TV rights by agreeing to other revenue-sharing arrangements. League officials noted that a potential long-term work stoppage was factored into the $60 million price ESPN agreed to in May 2004

That one-year contract, with options for two more seasons, would have been roughly half of what ESPN had pay over the course of a five-year, $600 million rights deal that expired with the end of the 2003-04 season. Under that contract, ESPN would have held rights to two Stanley Cup Finals contests, most of the playoff action and a reduced regular-season package NBC's pact, signed at the same time, essentially replaced the one formerly held by ABC Sports.

Currently up for grabs is a package of live regular-season and postseason telecasts that haven't been a ratings juggernaut.

ESPN and ESPN2 averaged a 0.5 household rating (20 regular season games) and 0.2 mark (50 games), respectively, during the 2003-04 season. Playoff telecasts were not much better, with ESPN averaging a 0.7 for 29 games and ESPN2 a 0.5 rating for 30 contests.

Still, the package could provide a brand boost to such services as Spike TV or a USA Network, which don't air contests from a major pro sports league. Comcast, which is also said to have interest in the National Football League's late-season Thursday/Saturday primetime package of games, could use the NHL to build awareness for a network like OLN, or perhaps even bundle the properties to start a national sports service.

MSO spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick, though, would not say what network would carry the NHL games if Comcast should acquire the rights.

RSN FALL-BACKS

If the NHL cannot reach a national cable rights deal, it could fall back on its regional sports network deals through Fox Sports Net, Comcast Sports Net and other stand-alone regional services like Denver-based Altitude Sports Network. Those services, which typically derive solid local market ratings for NHL contests, could wind up with more playoff contests, if a national package doesn't materialize.

If necessary, the league could also farm out postseason games to its NHL Center Ice out-of-market sports package, which In Demand LLC, DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network are expected to continue to carry.

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