NHL Is Pleased With TV Deal

Times Staff Writer

It may not seem sensible to televise hockey, an indoor sport, on the Outdoor Life Network, but NHL officials seemed pleased with their new national television contract Thursday.

"We're in love with the whole deal," said Tim Leiweke, the president of AEG, which owns the Kings. "And we have the right partners. We will miss ESPN, which did a phenomenal job, but this deal marks a fresh start.

"ESPN was a servant to 20 masters. On OLN, at least for now, we will be the single most important sport."

Leiweke, on a business trip to London, added, "A lot of credit goes to [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman. He did something a lot of people never thought he'd be able to do."

The new deal calls for OLN, as the network now prefers to be called, to televise NHL regular-season games on Monday and Tuesday nights. OLN will also cover the playoffs, including the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals.

NBC, as part of a revenue-sharing deal first announced in May 2004, will televise the remaining games of the finals in prime time. NBC will also televise six Saturday games during the regular season.

The NHL's cable TV agreement is with Comcast, which owns OLN. It calls for a rights fee of $65 million this season and $70 million in 2006-07, with a 2007-08 option-year rights fee of at least $72.5 million.

The agreement between the NHL and Comcast was approved by the NHL's board of governors last week. ESPN, which in June passed on an exclusive option to pick up the NHL at $60 million for this season, had until Wednesday to match the Comcast numbers. ESPN announced late Wednesday night that it would pass.

Details of the Comcast deal were announced Thursday.

One drawback to the new deal is that OLN is available in only about 60% of the nation's 109 million television homes. The availability in the L.A. market is only 40%.

ESPN is in about 90% of all television households.

Gavin Harvey, OLN president, said that the acquisition of the NHL rights should improve distribution.

"We think this is absolutely a growth mechanism for us," he said on a conference call."

Another drawback is that, according to Bettman, the plan is to make Monday nights exclusive to OLN.

So Monday night games cannot be shown on local television.

The Kings, for example, have 12 games scheduled on Monday nights this season that can't be shown locally on FSN West.

They can be televised nationally only if picked up by OLN.

Bettman said that in future seasons, fewer games would be scheduled on Monday nights.

"Everyone should keep in mind that for this season, we did our schedule before we had this relationship," he said on a conference call.

Of ESPN's decision to pass, George Bodenheimer, the network's president, said in a statement, "Given the prolonged work stoppage and the league's TV ratings history, no financial model even remotely supports the contract terms offered. We wish the NHL all the best."

Steve Burke, Comcast chief operating officer, offered a different viewpoint.

"I think hockey is going to change and evolve tremendously in the next two years, and you've got a lot of brand new technology, most notably high definition," he said. "And you've got a network in Outdoor Life that I think has shown through its coverage of the Tour de France that, when it gets behind a sport, it can really help bring it to a new level."

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