NBC, Versus to square off with ESPN for games

After spending billions in recent years to assemble a formidable slate of sports programming, Turner Broadcasting is taking a breather, opting not to bid for National Hockey League games, whose rights could go as high as $200 million a year.

Mindful of the mantra from his boss, Time Warner topper Jeff Bewkes, to be prudent on deals, Turner chief Phil Kent determined the NHL didn’t make financial sense for his nets, said a source familiar with the decision.

That leaves current NHL rights holder NBCUniversal and its sports cabler Versus to square off with ESPN for the NHL rights.

“We are disciplined in our approach to negotiating sports rights and are committed to providing quality programming that matters to our audience, advertisers and distribution partners,” Turner Sports topper David Levy said. “We think the NHL is an attractive property but we could not come up with a business model that served our interests.”

A rep for the NHL did not respond to a request for comment.

The decision by Turner to walk away from the NHL raises questions as to whether Turner will do the same in the hotly contested bidding war for rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games. That would leave incumbent NBCU to go up against an ABC-ESPN combo, believed to be preparing an aggressive bid for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Intl. Olympic Committee is considering allowing U.S. media companies to bid for the 2018 and 2020 Games, for which no host cities have been selected yet.

In recent years, Turner has stacked up rights deals, including those with the NBA, PGA, Major League Baseball and NASCAR. Its most recent deal is perhaps its costliest, picking up the majority of a $10.8 billion TV, Internet and wireless deal shared with CBS for the NCAA basketball tourney that extends through 2024.

With ratings for the tournament up 24% this year, Turner execs were said to be happy with their investment but want to exercise restraint on future deals, especially as Turner programming boss Steve Koonin looks to up expenditures on scripted programming for TNT and TBS.

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