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Labor Woes Help ESPN’s Deal With NHL

Labor problems helped ESPN and NBC take a bite out of rights fees as both networks inked new national television contracts with the low-rated National Hockey League last week.

The ESPN deal gives the leading cable sports network exclusive rights to the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals, the NHL All-Star Game and a reduced package of regular-season games on ESPN2.

Sources put the value of the ESPN agreement in the $60 million range: half of the $120 million the cable sports giant pays on its current five-year deal, which expires at season’s end. The league’s contract with the NHL Players Association expires on Sept. 15, so a work stoppage threatens next season.

Under the NBC agreement, the league, which is hemorrhaging red ink, will split ad revenue with the network after production costs over the next two seasons.

NBC will telecast games three through seven 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.

The Peacock’s NHL deal was modeled after its arrangement with the Arena Football League, which was also renewed last week.

NBC Universal Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol said the timing of the deal was too close to NBC’s purchase of Universal Vivendi Entertainment to involve USA Network.

Speaking at the press conference announcing the merger the previous week, Ebersol said NBC is interested in returning to major professional sports, but only through profitable deals.

ESPN and ESPN2 — which have options on two additional years — gain exclusivity during conference finals, plus additional exclusivities during the conference-semifinal series. There’s a host of rights for ESPN HD, ESPN Deportes, ESPN International,, ESPN Classic, ESPN Video-on-Demand, ESPN Broadband and ESPN Wireless.

ESPN2 will have 40 exclusive regular-season games — down from the 70 that aired on ESPN and ESPN2 this season.