Monday, July 30, 2007

NHL and ESPN Talking

Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal is reporting that the NHL and ESPN are having talks about bringing the league back to the World Wide Leader in Sports. The league may be back on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC as soon as the 2008-09 season.

Sources also say the league is negotiating its planned NHL Network with cable and satellite operators. The NHL is taking a page from MLB by tying carriage of its planned channel with the renewal of Center Ice. The U.S. channel will have a look and feel similar to the Canadian version, and will have 50 live games in 2007-08. Most of the content will be identical to what appears in Canada, although repackaged with some U.S.-based programming.

The NHL and ESPN are in discussions about bringing the league’s games back to ESPN2 as soon as the 2008-09 season.

Multiple sources described the conversations as preliminary. The two started talking the week of July 16 when the NHL approached ESPN about NBC’s nine-game regular-season schedule, plus the playoffs. NBC holds the rights to air the coming season as part of a revenue-sharing agreement, and the network holds a one-year option for the 2008-09 season.

It’s not certain that NBC would exercise that option, given the sport’s tepid ratings on the network. Regular-season ratings on NBC averaged a 0.9 during the 2006-07 season and a 1.0 during the 2007-08 season over nine telecasts.

The key to this whole scenario is Versus, which holds cable exclusivity to all of the league’s games through 2011 and is paying the league a rights fee in excess of $70 million annually. Sources close to the Comcast-owned network, however, indicated that Versus would be willing to waive that clause, but only if it gets something in return — either a lower rights fee, a stronger schedule or a deal extension.