Disney, Fox in NHL face off

League rights could score $400 mil for exclu pact

NEW YORK — A battle between Rupert Murdoch and Michael Eisner may drive up the price of the next National Hockey League contract to $400 million for five years, beginning with the 1999-2000 season, despite steadily declining Nielsen ratings for the games on Fox and ESPN.

Disney/ESPN is said to be ready to ace out Fox and pony up the $400 million, or $80 million a year, from 1999 to 2003, to get complete exclusivity to NHL games for both broadcast and cable TV. Spokesmen for ESPN, Fox and the NHL declined to comment on the talks.

Under the contracts, which expire after the 1998-99 season, ESPN is paying about $100 million over seven years for exclusive national-cable rights and the Fox network forks over $155 million in toto for exclusive broadcast rights.

But because the NHL staggers the payments so that the license fee starts relatively low and goes up each year, one insider says the league will pocket $45 million from Fox in 1998-99 and $15 million from ESPN in ’98-99. So the proposed $80 million a year combined broadcast and cable for a new contract is not out of line.

“ABC and ESPN want to get complete exclusivity to hockey because they can generate promotional and marketing opportunities between broadcast and cable that are not available now” because Fox has the broadcast rights, said Neal Pilson, a sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports.

“Also,” Pilson continued, “ABC and ESPN would love to take a property away from Fox,” particularly since ESPN is still smarting over being forced to fold its proposed regional sports network in California because West Coast cable operators refused to make channel space available.

When it folded ESPN West last month, Disney was forced to sell the exclusive cable rights to the games of its wholly owned teams the Anaheim Angels (Major League Baseball) and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (NHL) for the next 10 years to Murdoch’s Fox Sports West.

Despite the aggressive bid by ABC/ESPN for the NHL, Fox’s sports executives are studying the possibility of making a counterbid for total exclusivity. But one insider says the only way Fox could pay $400 million would be to link up the broadcast rights that Fox network would secure with the 19 local-market deals that Fox/Liberty’s regional sports network has with the individual teams.

But Pilson says one big question is how many games ABC would be willing to broadcast.

(Josef Adalian in New York contributed to this report.)

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