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Hockey Gets Hot at The Right Time

With the National Hockey League's current deals with NBC and Versus expiring after next season, it could be a very good time for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to be negotiating a new round of
TV rights agreements.

"Gary is in a much better position today than he was a year ago or even two years ago," said Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm Sportscorp. "As I say that, the NHL is not one of the great broadcast properties available."

But the NHL is on an uptick. The season concluded with two storied teams from top-five U.S. TV markets, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers, facing off for the Stanley Cup, and initial ratings for the finals were up by double digits.

But the league has had a rocky road as a television property. After a damaging strike in 2004-05, the NHL struck a revenue-sharing deal with NBC. On cable, the network was dropped by ESPN but wound up on Versus, which is paying more than $72.5 million per season.

Bettman attributed the NHL's resurgence to the quality of the game, a new Website loaded with video and events such as the Winter Classic. "We're doing a lot of marketing and promotional things that give us an opportunity to build scale, and you're seeing some of that scale translate into our traditional television ratings; you're [also] seeing it in the traffic on," he said.

But even with its recent gains, the NHL is no NBA. On May 29, the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals drew a 2.8 rating on NBC. TNT posted a 5.8 rating with an NBA playoff game featuring the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns.

Though some have complained that the NHL gets much less exposure on Versus than it did on ESPN, the incumbent rights holders have the inside track when talks begin, according to Bettman. "The fact is that whenever you have a relationship and it's a good relationship, you always talk to your existing partners first," he told B&C.

On the broadcast side, Bettman declined to say whether he'd be asking for a rights fee in the next round of negotiations. And Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, also declined to say whether NBC is willing to pay one. But he did say the fact NBC isn't paying a fee shouldn't reflect on the NHL. "Hockey is a fabulous sport," Schanzer said, adding that the network's deal with the NBA in the 1990s called for both a rights fee and a revenue share.

Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said he expects the league to stick with its current TV outlets, unless someone shows up with a big rights fee and a schedule similar to NBC's. "Versus will continue to offer the NHL more exposure and more money than ESPN," Pilson said. "ESPN has so many other commitments, while the NHL is Versus' flagship sport." And with Comcast acquiring NBC, "I think they can generate more revenue together," he added.

But there is that loud contingent that thinks the NHL has to get back on ESPN, among them Sportscorp's Ganis. "It's not so much a matter of whether the teams could make an extra million or two million a year in revenue," he said. "What they need more than anything else is exposure and cross-promotion, and for better or worse in the U.S., for sports that means ESPN."