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ESPN Assesses Its Deal With the NHL

February 18, 2005|Helene Elliott and Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — The cancellation of the NHL season might mark the end of the league's relationship with ESPN.

Once a programming staple, the NHL has had a reduced presence on the network in recent years. This season it was scheduled to have 40 regular-season games on ESPN2, and Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals and the All-Star game on ESPN, a deal worth $60 million. ESPN holds options for two more years, at about $70 million a season.

But for a network that also televises the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball, the NHL might not be as important a property, especially with no end in sight to the collective bargaining stalemate that led Commissioner Gary Bettman to cancel the season Wednesday.

"We're assessing all of our options," Diane Lamb, ESPN's director of media relations, said Thursday from Bristol, Conn. "Obviously, with the labor uncertainty, there are many questions.

"We are optimistic there is a future for the NHL on ESPN."

The NHL also was to start a two-year deal with NBC in which it received no rights fee and would have shared advertising revenue with the network for its telecasts of seven regular-season games and up to 11 playoff games. The NHL's previous deal with ESPN and ABC, worth $600 million over five years, expired after last season.

In Los Angeles, the long-term agreements FSN West and FSN West 2 have with the Kings and Mighty Ducks will be in effect if hockey returns next season, said Randy Freer, FSN's chief operating officer.

"Over the long haul, if hockey returns next year, there won't be any financial impact one way or the other," Freer said. "But we are in the business of providing local sports, and when you have two franchises not playing, that hurts our business."

The loss of hockey does not create as big a void as would the loss of baseball. FSN West and FSN West 2 were scheduled to televise 65 King games and 40 Duck games this season. FSN West 2 will televise about 100 Dodger games this year, and, as of now, FSN West is scheduled to televise at least 50 Angel games.

Freer admits that hockey does not draw strong ratings in L.A. but adds, "Hockey has a very strong core of fans here."

Steve Simpson, the general manager of FSN West and FSN West 2, points out they have relied on the "Best Damn Sports Show Period" to fill some of the void, while adding more college basketball, poker and beach volleyball. Also, the two networks will televise 20 Galaxy and 20 Chivas USA Major League Soccer games this summer.

Elliott reported from New York, Stewart from Los Angeles.

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