Game On: ESPN to Bid For NHL Rights, Potentially as Soon as January

From Anthony Crupi of Mediaweek:

In a move that would serve to kneecap the ambitions of Comcast-NBC Universal, ESPN is poised to take a run at the rights for the National Hockey League.

And the battle for the NHL could function as a dry run for ESPN’s pursuit of a far bigger prize: the Olympics. That said, Bristol does not have an open field spread out before it; as the incumbent cable rights holder, Comcast’s Versus has first dibs.

Before the crush of the holidays puts New York on ice, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will meet with Versus brass to discuss a renewal. Per the terms of their original pact, Versus has an exclusive window with the league, and while neither side would comment on the matter, sources indicate that the NHL is open to lining up a new TV partner.

NBC’s broadcast deal is also running down; while Versus pays $72.5 million per year for the rights to carry NHL games, the Peacock doesn’t part with a red cent. Rather than pony up for hockey rights, NBC reached a revenue-sharing deal that sees it split its ad dollars with the league.

Given that the Comcast-NBCU deal could close as soon as year’s end, any formal agreements should hold until at least January, opening the way for NBC and Versus to offer a joint bid. “We’re dealing with consummate professionals at NBC and Versus,” Bettman said. “We’re not viewing this situation as anything but business as usual.”

Rest assured, ESPN isn’t all that concerned with what Ebersol wants. While Bristol is officially playing coy about its goals, evp of content John Skipper has said that he is interested in bringing the NHL back into the fold. The enmity that strained talks between ESPN and the NHL back in ’05 is a distant memory, and franchise owners are hungry to reclaim prelockout ratings.

ESPN’s move to end its 21-year run with the league was a culmination of weeks of public badmouthing by former evp, programming & production Mark Shapiro. “That guy shit all over the NHL,” said one network exec. “They probably could have had the rights for $55 million, but Shapiro went out and talked to anybody with a laptop and a pulse, and Bodenheimer had to back him up.”

As Versus huddles with the NHL, Bettman will be reminded that Comcast provided a huge cash infusion when the league needed it most.

Thing is, he’s not a nostalgic guy. “Bettman’s not going to get all dewy-eyed about his relationship with Versus,” said one network boss. “He’s all business, he’s back in the driver’s seat and he’s going to get the deal that’s best for the NHL.”