Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Details of NHL-Comcast deal begin to leak

Last week it was reported in the Boston Globe that the deal between the NHL and Comcast for the league's new U.S. cable TV home was finalized. However, the ins and outs of said deal were not available.

In today's Philadelphia Inquirer, the details are discussed.

And agreement has been reached by the two sides for a two-year, $100 million deal for Comcast's OLN (Outdoor Life Network) to air two games a week nationally. For one of those games, OLN will have U.S. exclusivity, as there will be no other games on in any markets that night. Comcast has committed to broadcasting some games in HDTV, a medium many industry insiders have pointed to as favoring the NHL over any other major sport.

The NHL has the right to end the partnership after two years, however if they decide to stay, Comcast has a one-year option followed by a three-year option.

For the arrangement to be finalized, the NHL's Board Of Govenors has to approve it, however, according to the article, it's said to be a formality. Once they do so, the deal has to be sent to ESPN, who have the right to match any deal as per their previous agreement.

What this means for the NHL's future remains to be seen. It's believed that Comcast wants to revamp OLN into an all-sports network, to take on ESPN. There had been talk last week that they were going to make a pitch for the NFL's cable TV package as well. In addition to their successful deal with the Tour de France, OLN has also scooped up the America's Cup yacht race and the Boston Marathon, both of which were previously on ESPN. However, it must be said that numerous networks have tried and failed to slay the mighty mighty ESPN.

It does appear as though Comcast is hitching it's wagon to the NHL, using it as one of their flagship properties. For the league, that has to be a positive. Unlike with ESPN or Fox, who had many other more lucrative partners, they now have a network who is as interested in growing the game as they are, because as the NHL grows, so does their fledging channel.

In Comcast, the NHL would have a direct partnership with the world's biggest cable company, making things like high definition TV and Video On Demand (long thought to be the future of programming) a much easier avenue to take.

All of this isn't to say that there aren't obvious risks. As it stands, OLN is not considered a premier cable network the way ESPN was. According to the Inquirer article, it is estimated that OLN is only in 61 million homes, 20 million less than ESPN and 10 million less than ESPN2. It is hoped that a repackaged OLN, with the NHL riding shotgun, will be seen as a strong network, driving more cable outlets to include it in their package.

There is also the perception of what OLN is. ESPN, for better or worse, had the repuatation of being the elite sports programming network in the world, and any involvement with them, even as the red headed step-child that no one wanted, had it's upside for the NHL. OLN is largely ignored by most people I know. It's not even programmed into my settings, and when all this speculation errupted last month, I had to channel surf to even find it on my dial.

You have to assume that Comcast, who aren't exactly strapped for cash, will go all out on some sort of advertising blitz to make the public more aware of OLN and how it's not just hunting and fishing (like I, and I figure many others, assumed). And I would think the NHL would now be a part of it. But it's still not the safe bet that ESPN was. There was word that they were talking with USA Network and Spike TV, among others. Both those networks have a higher brand awareness.

What Gary Bettman has to decide, and it looks like he and those around him already have, is are the rewards worth the risk.

Coupled with their NBC deal, hockey fans south of the border no long have to fear they won't get their NHL fix come October. Let's just hope they keep the games indoors.


At 2:19 PM, Blogger Jes GÅ‘lbez said...

I think this is great news for the NHL! If Comcast really wants the NHL so badly and is willing to give it the time and attention it deserves, the NHL will benefit in the long run. ESPN and ABC treated hockey like an unwanted cousin, and the NHL needs a network that will help the sport grow in the USA.

I know the OLN sounds like small potatoes, but there really is a market, I believe, for another US national sports broadcaster. ESPN seems to get so many complains about its dwindling quality that Comcast could steal some of its thunder and present a better option

At 2:38 PM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

I agree that if Comcast treats the NHL like a partner and not the left over scraps the way Fox and ESPN/ABC did, then it will be ideal.

Getting involved from the ground floor with the network also has it's upside, because as it grows, so does the NHL, which looks like it will be positioned as one of their leading properties.

This is all assuming, of course, the network succeeds. Only time will tell.


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