NHL, in Search of Cable Deal, Draws Much Interest

As the NHL seems ready to play games again, it has no national U.S. cable TV deal. An idea: Put games, with players and coaches miked live, on ad-free HBO, where anything goes with on-air expletives.

"That's intriguing," HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg says. "The only issues would be how much (money) they'd want and the games' significance. I'm not sure regular-season games would have the heat we'd need. But if they gave us an open book, we'd fill the pages."

Don't laugh. The NHL, which got microscopic national U.S. TV ratings before it shut down, needs TV for more than money. It needs TV to climb out of its hole.

ESPN, in May, passed on renewing its NHL TV rights for $60 million annually and proved it could live without hockey by averaging 0.8% of U.S. cable TV households for hastily assembled shows that replaced the NHL playoffs - which had averaged just 0.7% in 2004.

"We're interested in doing a deal," says ESPN senior vice president David Berson, adding ESPN wants the NHL to change its rules so games can't end tied. "But we're proceeding with alternate plans. If we're going to do a deal, it needs to be sooner rather than later."

Berson won't rule out ESPN paying a rights fee to get the NHL. But it's hard to see why it would need to pay much. NBC got a package of regular-season and playoff games, including Games 3 through 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, via revenue-sharing.

And since sports programming on cable's USA Network is under NBC Sports' corporate guidance, it's possible NHL games might show up on USA. Says NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer: "We're actively looking at it."

Remember, however, that network programmers almost always (publicly) say they're interested in picking up whatever TV rights are in play. In the inbred world of big-time sports, there's no point in dissing anyone unnecessarily. And besides, showing interest in a TV property might prompt a rival network to overpay to win it.

TNT, like USA, already gets higher prime-time ratings than the NHL draws. But Turner Sports President David Levy says TNT might explore an NHL revenue-sharing deal "with risks on both sides." Spike TV has shown interest in the NHL, an option the league might consider if it craves greater public anonymity.

George Greenberg, executive vice president of Fox Sports Net, says FSN isn't interested since its regional sports networks already carry lots of hockey, which doesn't leave much for national TV games: "For FSN, hockey is a regional product."

Then there's a TV wild card whose interest in hockey might signal something bigger. Comcast, the USA's top cable operator with 21.5 million households and four regional sports channels, might someday create a national sports channel - a prospect delighting sports league executives who carp privately that ESPN is too bossy.

Comcast owns the Philadelphia Flyers. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Tuesday that sources inside and outside of the company say Comcast might bid for TV rights. Flyers Chairman Ed Snider told The Inquirer this week the NHL is better off without ESPN. It hasn't done "a good job for hockey," Snider said. "I'm glad they're gone."

Sounds like gauntlet-throwing. The obvious Comcast outlet for NHL games would be its Outdoor Life Network. Going to OLN wouldn't help the argument, if anybody wants to make it, that the NHL is a sort of major league. But maybe Comcast could use the NHL as a building block for something bigger. Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick won't play along: "We won't comment on speculation or rumors."

Neal Pilson, a TV industry consultant, suggests NHL rights could be split up. ESPN could pay "less money and get fewer games and the NHL could create another national package, possibly for OLN."

So, in what seems like a violation of the law of physics, the NHL is attracting TV interest. Says NHL spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur: "We're talking to several parties. We do have interest." And maybe HBO could work The Sopranos into games.

07/20/2005 07:04