SBJ/April 11-17, 2011/Media

NHL annual rights fee to top $200 million

The NHL is poised to sign its biggest media rights deal within the next two months, as the presence of three bidders is pushing the annual rights fee above $200 million, sources familiar with the discussions said.

The NHL is expecting to entertain offers from ESPN, NBC/Versus and a surprisingly strong push from Turner. Fox, which had early talks with the NHL, is not believed to be in the running to pick up the rights.

The presence of three bidders will help to push the league’s rights fee well beyond the $77.5 million per year that Versus now pays. The fee also is expected to exceed – by far – the $120 million per year average that ESPN paid from 1999 to 2004, which is the NHL’s largest contract to date. The league’s current deal with NBC is a revenue-sharing deal that does not involve a rights fee.

It’s difficult to declare a front-runner, sources said. But NBC and Versus hold a significant advantage over the other bidders. Their current contracts give them the right to match other offers the NHL gets, from either ESPN or Turner.

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins has been leading the negotiations for the league.

Versus and NBC’s exclusive negotiating windows ended earlier this year, allowing the NHL to engage other networks for both the cable and broadcast packages.

The most intriguing potential bid comes from Turner, which is looking to add sports to its truTV lineup. TruTV was a big part of Turner’s NCAA tournament coverage, and Turner executives were happy with the channel’s performance. TruTV is in 93 million homes.

Sources close to the discussions said Turner is more interested in bidding for the NFL when that league’s rights come up in 2013. While it’s interested in the NHL, it’s not willing to break the bank on it.

ESPN has talked with the NHL about placing the league’s entire television package – broadcast and cable – on ESPN2. But an ESPN source also said that ABC remains a viable option, particularly for the Stanley Cup Final.

It’s been no secret inside the NHL that many of the league’s executives favor ESPN. They believe a deal with ESPN will guarantee more coverage on popular shows like “SportsCenter.”

Many observers believe it would make sense for Versus to retain the package, since the NHL produces its highest profile programming and accounts for the network’s biggest ratings.

Staff writer Fred Dreier contributed to this report.

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