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OLN Filling NHL-Sponsor Roster

OLN was nearing deals with several sponsors for its coverage of the National Hockey League, which faces off Oct. 5.

The Comcast Corp.-owned service has lined up DaimlerChrysler Corp.’s Dodge to sponsor one of the intermission segments, according to OLN senior vice president of ad sales John West, who added that OLN was seeking another advertiser in that capacity. The sponsors would rotate their entitlements of the intermission spans.

OLN -- which succeeded ESPN as the national carrier for the sport through a two-year, $135 million deal, finalized in August -- as well as the regional sports networks that carry the sport are facing an uphill skate as the NHL returns to the ice following a work stoppage that iced the entire 2004-05 season.

At press time, West said OLN was close to finalizing deals with some of the league’s sponsors, and it had inked a number of fourth-quarter scatter-market pacts for its hockey package. West declined to say how much of OLN’s NHL inventory for the season has been accounted for.

“During the short amount of time we’ve had to take this package to market, it has exceeded our expectations in terms of demand,” he added. “We’re very pleased where we are, but we know we still have a long way to go.”

OLN and NHL executives would not project a ratings average for the upcoming season. Sources at Comcast, though, said the parties are setting their Nielsen Media Research sights closer to ESPN2’s 0.2 household average during the 2003-04 season, rather than ESPN’s 0.5 mark for the last NHL campaign.

OLN, with 64 million homes, counts 26 million fewer subscribers than ESPN’s 90 million. That differential could grow if OLN does not succeed in convincing carriers like Cablevision Systems Corp., Adelphia Communications Corp. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network to move it to more highly penetrated positions.

While the network will offer the Oct. 5 season opener between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers to all of its subscribers, it said it will turn the lights out for the remainder of the season to distributors if they don’t offer the service to 40% or more of their respective subscriber bases.

Together, Cablevision and Adelphia, with the network available on sports tiers, only contribute a combined 100,000 OLN subscribers. That’s a far cry from the 3 million and 5.2 million video subscribers the MSOs count, respectively. More tellingly, the NHL and OLN could lose access to some 3.4 million EchoStar subscribers if Dish does not move the network from its “America’s Top 180” expanded-basic tier.

EchoStar representatives declined to comment on the matter. Adelphia declined to comment by press time. A Cablevision spokesman would only say, “We intend to deliver these games to our customers.”

OLN spokeswoman Amy Phillips said the network is willing to work with Cablevision and other distributors to “bring hockey to as many people as possible.”

NHL advertising prospects on the regional sports networks have been a mixed bag to date.

In strong hockey markets like Detroit, Tampa Bay, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, regional sports executives said ad prices are close to 95% of pre-lockout rates, and inventory is close to being sold out.

But in markets where the team and fan loyalties aren’t as strong, network ad executives said ad rates are being discounted as much as 70%-80% from 2003-04 levels, and at least 50% of inventory remains unsold.

“It’s where you have the stories and the traditional strengths that the market will recover quicker,” FSN executive VP of ad sales Kyle Sherman said. “In the other markets, it’ll be a ramp-up process where we’ll see increases over time, but we feel like hockey is in a good place.”

Mike Reynolds contributed to this story.