- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — NHL games will air on Outdoor Life Network for at least the next two seasons.

The league finalized a two-year deal with Comcast Corp. — the owner of OLN — late Wednesday night after ESPN declined to match the agreement that will pay the NHL $65 million this season and $70 million in 2006-07.

The agreement between Comcast and the NHL was approved by the league’s board of governors last week. ESPN, which resumed regular coverage of NHL games in 1992, had until Wednesday night to match the contract but decided to pass.

“Over the years, thousands of great NHL moments were presented to our fans through the lenses of ESPN cameras,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “ESPN was a supportive partner, and both the National Hockey League and ESPN enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. We wish ESPN continued success.”

The new deal can be extended up to six years. For the 2007-08 season, Comcast would pay the NHL $72.5 million. That number could go higher based on contingencies.

OLN, best known for providing live coverage of the Tour de France, will show between 58 and 78 regular-season games, as well as conference quarterfinals and the entire conference finals — with the exception of some weekend windows that could move games to NBC in both playoff rounds.

OLN will show Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals before NBC takes over for the remainder of the championship series.

The deal with Comcast goes beyond just television rights. Comcast will bring the NHL Network to cable systems in the United States, and provide on-demand game broadcasts and computer streaming of live games.

Comcast said it also will have the ability to carry or syndicate games on Comcast’s regional sports networks where it has the consent of the local team and team’s rights holder.

This is the second time in recent months that ESPN has declined a deal with the NHL. In June, ESPN passed on a $60 million option under the previous contract. The network tried to retain the rights for less money in talks with the league.

Disney, ESPN’s parent company, recently agreed to pay the NFL $8.9 billion over eight years starting next year for continued rights to “Monday Night Football,” and move it to ESPN from ABC.

ESPN contended the value of NHL games had dropped substantially following the lockout that wiped out all of last season. In the past year, poker and competitive eating have received equal, if not better, ratings than NHL games.

“We worked very hard to build and sustain our relationship with the league and would have liked to continue,” George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN, Inc. and ABC Sports said late Wednesday night. “However, given the prolonged work stoppage and the league’s TV ratings history, no financial model even remotely supports the contract terms offered. We wish the NHL all the best.”

The NHL will begin a two-year deal with NBC for over-the-air broadcasts beginning with the upcoming season. That is a profit-sharing arrangement, a deal similar to what the network has with the Arena Football League and the National Lacrosse League in which it pays no rights fee to televise games.

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