SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2011/Media

Fox, Turner show interest in NHL

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Fox and Turner are taking an early look at the NHL’s cable TV package, raising the likelihood that the league will have a competitive bidding process — with as many as four networks — as it negotiates new TV deals this year.

Versus’ exclusive negotiating window ended in late January, leading the league to send out feelers to several networks to gauge interest in the NHL’s TV rights. The league reached out to ESPN, which held the NHL’s TV rights from 1992 to 2004, and is still engaged in talks with Versus, its current rights holder.

For the past several months, ESPN has been open about its interest in kicking the tires on the NHL’s cable package and was considered Versus’ main competition for the rights. Many NHL executives have favored a move back to ESPN. And with the NBA facing the possibility of canceling games next season, ESPN could be in the market for more winter sports on its schedule. Plus, ESPN has a history with the NHL, having launched ESPN2 in 1993 with a heavy schedule of NHL games.

Versus is expected to make a strong bid to retain the NHL, which is the Comcast-owned channel’s highest-rated programming. This will be the first major TV sports negotiation by the combined Comcast-NBC since federal regulators approved their merger last month. The league is hoping that Comcast will want to send a message that it’s serious about picking up sports rights by stepping up and keeping the NHL.

But the league’s outreach to Fox and Turner shows that it wants to build an auction process that will push the TV rights package well above the $77.5 million annual payout it gets from Versus.

Sources at those two programming groups said that while things still are in the exploratory stage, they are interested in examining the  rights package further.

Fox has been looking to add sports to its FX cable channel, and many of its regional sports networks have deals with NHL teams. Turner could be interested in bringing more sports to its TruTV cable channel. In March, TruTV will begin telecasting some NCAA Tournament games.

While they’ve been happy with the production quality, some NHL executives have been frustrated with the overall visibility of Versus, which still is not available in many bars and restaurants. It also has the lowest distribution of the potential networks. ESPN2 is in 99 million homes, FX is in 96 million homes, TruTV is in 92 million homes and Versus is in 76 million homes.

As the next big national rights deal to be negotiated, the NHL is hoping that these channels will view hockey as a way to build their on-air sports portfolio. Any deal also could include the NHL’s international TV rights, which also are up.
“Looking at the next bunch of rights deals that are up, it’s the NHL, the Pac-10, the Olympics and the NFL,” said a source involved with the talks. “That’s kind of it for a while.”

The NHL is going into this bidding process with a fair bit of momentum. The league’s viewership numbers on Versus are up 13 percent this year. Through Feb. 20, Versus’ NHL games have averaged 319,000 viewers, compared to last year’s 283,000 through Feb. 9.

The NHL’s negotiating position was helped last week when it signed a $375 million deal with MillerCoors in the U.S. and Molson Coors in Canada that includes at least $100 million in committed media buys.

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