Versus-NHL Deal Leaves Door Open

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Versus can ice its National Hockey League deal after the upcoming season, a move that could allow ESPN to skate back into the pucks sport.

The Comcast-owned service has the right to end its NHL deal after the 2007-08 campaign, according to league deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who also said the hockey circuit can pull out of the deal based on whether Versus reaches certain distribution thresholds.

Daly, though, expects Versus to pick up the three-year option that would give the network TV and broadband rights through the 2010-11 season.

If either party pulls out of the deal — and if broadcaster NBC exercises a reported option to exit its NHL deal after the 2007-08 season — it could clear the ice for ESPN or other distributors to step in and acquire the league’s rights for 2008-09.

Versus, which is entering its third year of NHL coverage, can decide not to exercise its option for the remaining three years of its approximately $72 million-per-year deal prior to the end of the 2007-08 season, according to Daly. It’s one of two options Versus holds as part of the agreement signed in August 2005: Earlier this year, the network exercised an option to televise the 2007-08 season.

At the time, Versus president Gavin Harvey said the network would have the NHL “for six years.”

Representatives would not comment last week.

Daly believes that Comcast and Versus will exercise their option for the remaining three seasons. “The original deal was contemplated to be a six-year deal,” he said. “[Versus] exercised their option for the third year, and it’s yet to be seen what they’ll do in the future, although we have no reason not to expect that we’ll be with them for the six years.”

The NHL can also pull out of the deal at the end of this season if Versus does not meet certain subscriber benchmarks, which Daly would not specify. He did say, however, the league is satisfied with the network’s subscriber growth, which he said has increased from 63 million in 2005, when it carried the NHL for the first time, to its current 72 million-subscriber mark.

“That’s a very important factor for us — it was from the start — and Comcast is living up to their expectation to increase their distribution,” Daly said. “They have made enough significant increases in distribution that as we sit here today, that option would not be available to us.”

If the NHL or Versus decide to pull out of the deal, it could set up a scenario first reported in Sports Business Journal wherein ESPN could step in and once again secure regular- and postseason NHL rights. NBC, which has held NHL broadcast TV rights since 2005, can opt out of its revenue-sharing agreement after the 2007-08 season.

The NHL has approached ESPN about securing NBC’s package, SBJ reported.

In a statement, ESPN said that the NHL “has existing TV agreements … when the rights become available, we’ll discuss possibilities with the NHL.”

The NHL would not comment on those possibilities. NBC Sports executives could not be reached for comment.