SBJ/20100927/This Week's Issue

NHL sees breakthrough in local streaming

The NHL believes it has a game-changer in convincing regional sports networks to embrace in-market streaming of live games — by extending the rights to mobile devices.

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said the league is close to an agreement that would have many of its 24 U.S.-based teams launch in-market streaming of live games on both broadband and wireless platforms, marking a potential sea-change in the way fans can view local game telecasts.

Fox Sports Net, which holds the rights to 13 teams, is the one closest to agreeing on a deal allowing in-market live streaming to both broadband and mobile devices, sources said. Comcast SportsNet, which holds the rights to four teams, also is talking to the league.

A deal with either RSN heavyweight instantly would make the NHL’s in-market streaming efforts much broader than other leagues’ offerings. MLB, for example, has only two teams operating an in-market service; the NBA has just one team with concrete plans to stream games in its coming season.

RSNs and teams in those leagues have not found an economic model that works. After two disappointing tests with NBA teams last year, Eric Grilly, Comcast Sports Group’s executive vice president and chief digital officer, said he’d have to add mobile rights if Comcast is going to roll out the service to additional markets.

“At this point, we see a greater opportunity on mobile, both in terms of consumer interest and monetizing those rights,” he said.

That’s where the NHL also sees an opening.

“For us, our willingness to jump ahead and talk about wireless rights was a big motivator,” Collins said. “A lot of the RSNs and clubs are planning on doing some work around that this year. Some will be in broadband. Probably more will be in wireless. We’re still working through this.”

Specifically, the two sides are working through how to make the wireless options available to RSNs. That’s an area FSN acknowledged represents a significant snag in its talks with the NHL.

“We’re not in a rush,” an FSN spokesperson said. “The product we offer has to make sense for us and our viewers.”

Plans are still taking shape for the mobile offerings. Any service would have to authenticate that the service is available only to cable and satellite subscribers.

Grilly spoke of a plan that would stream a package of games, not the full schedule, for a set fee to mobile subscribers, who would likely have to download an app to access the games.

“We’ve identified how we would do it, in terms of vendor and support and model. We’re working on the rights and the terms,” Grilly said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that you might see us do something in this upcoming season.”

Both RSN groups are testing broadband streaming services this preseason that will have no mobile component.

FSN holds the rights to five teams that have plans to stream preseason games live this year: the Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators. Comcast holds the rights to one team that plans to stream a preseason game: the San Jose Sharks.

In FSN’s case, the targeted games are not available on television. The teams picked up all costs associated with producing and streaming the games. The stream consisted only of the scoreboard feeds and was available on both the team and RSN sites.

While the mobile rights are attracting a significant amount of interest by the RSN, the economic model offered by the NHL on broadband streaming also has the network’s attention.

Unlike the NBA, which is charging RSNs $3,300 a game to stream broadband games live in-market, the NHL isn’t charging anything for its broadband service, sources said.

“We understand the significance of these digital rights in the local marketplace,” Collins said. “Our intent is not to dilute those rights but find a structure where we can give them more flexibility to serve their local customer while helping us grow some of the bigger league media initiatives that we have. That’s been the balance.”

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