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Outdoor Life snatches hockey from ESPN

Cabler pays $200 million for three-year deal

Comcast’s Outdoor Life Network has outbid ESPN for the exclusive cable-TV rights to National Hockey League games, shelling out a reported $200 million or so for a three-year deal.

ESPN had the right to match the offer, but in a statement George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN, citing the loss of the entire 2004-05 NHL season due to a work stoppage and the poor Nielsen ratings of league games over the past decade, said that “no financial model even remotely supports the contractual terms offered” by the NHL.

A spokesman for ESPN said that OLN “is absolutely setting itself up as a competitor to ESPN,” which, along with its siblings ESPN2, ESPN Classic and others, is the only national distributed cable-sports operation in the U.S.

The spokesman said the NHL, trying to recover from the lost season, is also taking a risk in putting its games on a network that reaches only 63.8-million subscribers compared to the 89.2 million that get ESPN2 ( which would’ve carried all of the regular season games) and the 90.2 million subs receiving ESPN (which would’ve covered many of the post-season contests).

OLN is now likely to make a major push to win the rights to a package of post-Thanksgiving primetime National Football League games to be played on either Thursday or Saturday, beginning in 2006.

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