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.
A return to ESPN could boost the league’s
profile on the network’s news shows. Some
say coverage of the league by ESPN has fallen
considerably since the network’s contract expired.
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.
Sources say the conversations are happening at the highest levels and include NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and ESPN executive vice president of content John Skipper.
The talks with ESPN mark a turnaround from three years ago, when Mark Shapiro, then-executive vice president of programming and production, publicly questioned the value of having the league on TV — remarks that still make league executives bristle. The arrival of Skipper in October 2005 could allow both sides to overcome that, as sources close to the league believe that Skipper values hockey more than Shapiro.
The NHL has faced immense criticism from hockey fans and media for its relationship with Versus, which is in about 71 million homes and sometimes difficult to locate. The first year of the NHL’s relationship with Versus was marked by complaints over the network’s limited distribution in markets such as Buffalo and Anaheim, as well as in hotels around the country.
Ever since, owners and team officials privately have pushed for a return to ESPN, which is in 92 million homes and a staple in bars, restaurants and hotels across the country, but few believed such a move would happen because of Versus’ cable exclusivity.
A return to ESPN could boost the league’s profile on the network’s news shows. According to an ESPN study of its 1 a.m. “SportsCenter” program, the show featured 29 fewer minutes of NHL coverage in March 2007 than in March 2004, the last year ESPN aired NHL games. That amounts to a 28 percent decline in hockey’s allotment of airtime, ESPN ombudsman Le Anne
Schreiber wrote in May.
The move would mark a change at Versus, as well, which is open to giving up its cable exclusivity if it can tap into ESPN’s marketing prowess. Over the past two years, Versus executives have complained privately that ESPN ignored their network. They are hoping for a situation that mirrors the NBA, where ESPN and TNT push viewers to each network’s games.
The league’s talks with ESPN come as it is negotiating with cable and satellite operators for carriage of its planned NHL Network and its out-of-market Center Ice package. Cable sources describe the negotiations as progressing smoothly, with the league taking a page from Major League Baseball by tying carriage of its planned channel with the renewal of Center Ice.
Some well-placed cable sources were skeptical that the league would be able to launch a 24-hour U.S. channel by this fall, given that the NHL hasn’t appointed anybody to run the channel yet and the NHL season begins in just three months.
Sources close to the league say that will not be a problem because it will rely heavily on an NHL Network that already exists — Canada’s version. The U.S. channel will have a look and feel similar to the Canadian one. The planned channel will have 50 live games in 2007-08. Most of the content will be identical to what appears in Canada, although it will be repackaged with some U.S.-based programming, sources said.
An internal team of five to seven people also has been assigned to work on the channel when it arrives in the U.S. The team will be led by Jody Shapiro, former vice president of business development at NBA TV, and Patti Fallick, group vice president of NHL Productions.
The league has hired Ascent Media Network Services to manage and distribute the channel. A subsidiary of publicly traded Ascent Media Group, the company has offices in Stamford, Conn., from which it will maintain the new network’s satellite signal, advertising insertions and other aspects of NHL Network. The company currently works with YES Network and the NFL Network.
The league wants the widest distribution possible for the new network and wants to stay away from sports tiers. It will continue to pursue the strategy used by MLB during its Extra Innings negotiations in hopes of avoiding sports-tier placement, but executives with several of the biggest cable operators have said they would only carry the NHL Network on a sports tier.