ESPN Renews NHL Deal

Capping a day that saw the circuit enter into a revenue-sharing arrangement for most of its premiere event with NBC, the National Hockey League also announced a one-year renewal pact with ESPN Inc. covering the 2004-05 season.

The deal, terms of which were not disclosed, again gives ESPN exclusive rights to the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, as well as the NHL All-Star Game.

Sources put the value of the agreement in the $50 million-$60 million range. ESPN’s current five-year deal, which expires at season’s end, averages $120 million annually. Labor unrest, however, could cast the low-rated sport’s season into an empty net.

The ESPN arrangement, which includes options for the following two seasons, gives the total sports network and sister service ESPN2 exclusivity during conference-finals telecasts, plus additional exclusivities during conference-semifinal series.

As for the regular season, ESPN2 will have 40 exclusive regular-season games -- 23 on Wednesdays and 17 on Sundays.

The deal -- which also encompasses a host of rights for ESPN HD, ESPN Deportes, ESPN International, (, ESPN Classic, ESPN Video-on-Demand, ESPN Broadband and ESPN Wireless -- was announced during a late-afternoon press conference featuring ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bodenheimer said the deal does not include ABC because the company wanted to concentrate on its “primary sports” drivers in ESPN and ESPN2. “It was a matter of priority, and for us, our priority in this particular property was ESPN and ESPN2,” he said.

It also follows announcement earlier in the day during which NBC said it had reached a revenue-sharing agreement for games 3-7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, as well as seven regionalized Saturday regular-season and playoff games. In essence, these were contests that have been airing on ABC.

NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol said the network will promote the telecasts heavily during its primetime lineup, including its highly rated Thursday-night schedule.

He added that the NHL’s previous broadcast deal with ABC was more of a cable play for ESPN and ESPN2, with the alphabet network more of a “second cousin” with regard to marketing and promotion.

He also said the timing of the deal was too close to NBC’s purchase of Universal Vivendi Entertainment to involve NBC Universal’s USA Network service.

NBC and NHL executives said the deal could be altered if the league cannot complete a labor agreement prior to the start of the season.