Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Paul on 07/25/05 at 10:38 AM ET
For Outdoor Life Network, media rights to the premier open-air events are not quite enough. The network also may be preparing an aggressive bid for an NHL television package that could mark the first step in transforming OLN into a competitor to ESPN. From the NHL’s perspective, OLN may represent the league’s best chance of commanding a rights fee for its cable television package, after ESPN chose not to exercise a $60 million option for next season. A high-ranking source at ESPN said there have been no talks between the league and the network since the NHL lockout was settled, and a top-level executive at Turner Broadcasting said it is unlikely that Turner would ever do a deal with the NHL. Viacom’s Spike TV has indicated it does not want to pay a rights fee to the NHL. That leaves only Comcast Corp., which owns OLN as well as regional sports networks and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, as the prime contender for NHL rights. Neither the league, OLN nor Comcast would comment specifically on any possible talks, but multiple sources said Comcast’s new head of programming Jeff Shell, a former Fox Sports Net executive, has had discussions with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman regarding a television deal for a Comcast-owned network. “I don’t see [going to OLN] as a positive step for the NHL, unfortunately,” said Bob Gutkowski, CEO of Criterion Sports & Entertainment and former president of Madison Square Garden. “Coming out of what they’ve come out of, they’ve got to try to get the most exposure possible, and OLN is still not a strong sports brand in this country. They would have to work very hard with OLN to make it a step forward. On the other hand, they can’t just be a servant to ESPN.” Comcast’s intention, insiders say, is not just to add programming to OLN, but to own a viable competitor to ESPN. Whether that comes in the form of an entirely new network — which would require multiple programming deals signed in rapid-fire fashion — or a retooled OLN, the NHL would be just the first step. “I don’t think you can really mount a challenge to ESPN unless it’s with the NFL,” said Dean Jordan, an executive at the consulting firm OnSports and former president of the Carolina Hurricanes. “It would have to involve rebranding, programming, something more than obviously the National Hockey League. But, Comcast has the means to do that.”update 10:08am, Team 590 Radio in Toronto just mentioned that Bettman is talking with CNBC today. One more update 10:30am, In a related story about sponsorship and the NHL,
But another NHL partner said replacing media partner ESPN was a central concern. “Everyone on the business side of hockey is encouraged that the league realized it had to make some changes to the product,” said Nike/Bauer Hockey President and CEO Chris Zimmerman, “but depending on where it ends up, the loss of ESPN could be the biggest casualty of the lockout.” The most immediate strategic change for the league’s corporate sales department, which shrunk from 20 employees to a handful during the lockout, is to try to get more activation in the United States. “Everyone wants to do business with us in Canada,” said Andrew Judelson, NHL sponsorship chief . “We’re going to be very focused on making sure that if a company wants to do business with us in Canada, they better get their U.S. brethren engaged.” Big brands with Canadian-only NHL deals include McDonald’s, Kraft, Gillette and Home Depot. New categories being targeted by the league include pharmaceuticals, home security, banking (Bank of America could be a target as it is acquiring longtime NHL sponsor MBNA) and overnight delivery.
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