SBD/Issue 42/Sports Media

ESPN Poised To Challenge Comcast-NBC For Rights To The NHL

Versus Has Exclusive Negotiation Window
With NHL To Renew TV Rights Deal

ESPN is "poised to take a run at the rights" for the NHL with the league's contracts with Versus and NBC expiring after this season, according to Anthony Crupi of MEDIAWEEK. But despite ESPN's interest, the network "does not have an open field spread out before it" because Versus "has first dibs." Before the holidays, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman "will meet with Versus brass to discuss a renewal." Per the terms of their original pact, Versus "has an exclusive window with the league." Still, sources indicated that the NHL is "open to lining up a new TV partner." Crupi noted given that the Comcast-NBCU merger "could close as soon as year’s end, any formal agreements should hold until at least January, opening the way for NBC and Versus to offer a joint bid." NBC Sports & Olympics Chair Dick Ebersol, who is in line to oversee sports for Comcast-NBC after the merger, has said that he "wants to retain the rights to the NHL." But ESPN "isn’t all that concerned with what Ebersol wants," and if ESPN "does submit a bid, it will jack up the NHL’s asking price above what already promises to be an inflated sum." Team owners are "looking for full broadcast compensation and as much as a 50 percent increase over the current rights fee, which adds up" to $110M per year. A TV industry source said, "Bettman’s not going to get all dewy-eyed about his relationship with Versus. He’s all business, he’s back in the driver’s seat and he’s going to get the deal that’s best for the NHL" (MEDIAWEEK.com, 11/7).

NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT: In Toronto, Kevin McGran writes the NHL "couldn't have picked a better time" to negotiate its TV contracts. The league is "no longer a punchline," growing into a $2.7B "media and entertainment empire." Former NHL Senior VP/Broadcasting John Shannon said, "Timing is everything. Based on the success they had in the playoffs with their ratings numbers, the fact the quality of hockey is better, the success of the Winter Classic, do they have a chance to make (their TV dollars) grow? Absolutely." Bruins President Cam Neely: "Right now we’re a gate-driven sport. We have other revenues, which is great. We’re in a better position now than we’ve ever been. The growth of our sport and the interest in our sport is as high as its been in a long, long time" (TORONTO STAR, 11/9).

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