SBJ/May 14 - 20, 2007/This Weeks News

NHL’s out-of-market talks mirror baseball, without the rancor

Weeks after the cable and satellite industries completed a deal for baseball’s out-of-market package and planned MLB Channel, another sports league is involved in similar negotiations with the same companies.

In this case, however, talks between the NHL and In Demand, DirecTV and EchoStar are not nearly as acrimonious as the ones Major League Baseball had with cable for the first three months of this year. In fact, multiple cable sources said they expect to launch the NHL Network, which is currently available in Canada, on a digital sports tier before the 2007-08 season.

With its Center Ice package up for renewal, the league is leveraging negotiations around that out-of-market package to get carriage for an NHL channel. Subscriptions to “Center Ice” have been strong since the lockout, increasing by 38 percent from pre-lockout levels, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

The strategy is nearly identical to MLB’s strategy of getting cable operators to commit to its out-of-market package, Extra Innings. Baseball would not grant access to Extra Innings unless cable committed to launch the MLB Channel.

Unlike MLB, though, the NHL is not expected to give cable or satellite operators a stake in its planned channel. It’s not known how much the NHL is seeking to charge cable operators for carriage, but it’s expected to be less than the 20 cents to 30 cents that the MLB Channel will get.

In 2005, Comcast committed to launch the NHL Network by 2009 as part of its deal to bring NHL games to Versus. MSO sources say they are optimistic that they will launch the NHL Network by next season.

The planned U.S. version of the network would feature programming that’s repurposed from the Canadian version of the channel.

The Canadian channel is owned by the league (60 percent), TSN (20 percent) and Insight Sports, a Canadian-based sports media company (20 percent). The league would own 95 percent of the channel in the United States.

In Canada, the 24-hour network currently features 20 live NHL games a year, as well as live AHL, ECHL, international and NCAA games.

 Its signature show, “NHL on the Fly,” airs in prime time daily and offers live look-ins, features, interviews and highlights.

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