ESPN freezes out NHL broadcasts
- NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Even if the National Hockey League returns to the ice in the fall, it seems likely that it won't be on ESPN.
Negotiations between the NHL and ESPN have reached an impasse over whether the cable sports giant will exercise a one-year option for $60 million to carry games if and when next season begins. Hockey's 2004-05 season was canceled in a league-imposed lockout after the players union wouldn't agree to significant concessions.
ESPN's option expires Wednesday, and the company won't exercise it, putting hockey's cable rights into play. Talks have been held with a handful of other suitors, including Spike TV. Viacom's male-targeted cable channel declined comment Tuesday.
But it is unlikely that Spike TV or other channels would agree to pay a significant rights fee for a league whose prominence had been declining in recent years even before the labor strife. Sources said it is likely that any bidder would want the same arrangement as NBC, which has a revenue-sharing deal with the NHL that involves no rights fee.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, ESPN executive vp programing/production Mark Shapiro indicated that his network and the NHL had reached the end of the road. He said ESPN would only consider a deal with no rights fee.
"We're not playing games here; we wanted to get a deal done," Shapiro said. "We wanted to do something long term, but given the damage that has been done given the labor strife ... we really had no choice."
The NHL wasn't willing to go below the $60 million price for the yearlong option.
"When the now-expired contract was negotiated, the $60 million option price took a work stoppage -- potentially a long-term work stoppage -- into consideration," Frank Brown, the NHL's vp media relations, said Tuesday. "We have no interest in further devaluating the product."
ESPN has a history with the NHL stretching back to the early days of the channel in 1979, including a national contract from 1985-88 and from 1992 to the present. But ESPN found that programing it aired in place of NHL games on a month-to-month basis during the canceled season did just as well or better than hockey would have. Shapiro said ESPN didn't want to fill the programing holes one month at a time, like it did last season.
"We're not going to be held hostage like we were last season," Shapiro said. "We have to move on with the future that contemplates no NHL carriage on ESPN."
The initial contract deadline was April 15, but ESPN pushed it back to June 1 when the network thought there was hope to salvage the season, which normally runs from October into April.
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