ABC, ESPN put NHL rights on ice

Fox expected to raise legal ruckus

The puck stops at ABC and ESPN: The Disney-owned outlets were said to have out-foxed Fox Sports in the battle for the broadcast and cable TV rights to the National Hockey League.

ABC and ESPN reportedly agreed to a five-year, $600 million NHL rights package beginning with the 1999-2000 hockey season, which would mark a significant price hike from the current game package shared by Fox and ESPN. But it’s just the latest chapter in the saga of spiraling sports rights fees that has alarmed broadcasters and cable operators.

Reps for the NHL could not be reached for comment late Thursday, while reps for ABC Sports and Fox Sports declined to comment on reports of a deal. The NHL’s 27 club owners were said to have unanimously approved the new contract Thursday.

Fox is expected to raise a legal ruckus about the bidding process for the new package. An individual familiar with the deal said Fox execs continue to assert that Fox hadn’t been given a full opportunity to match the broadcast portion of the contract, as required under its contract.

Fox will remain in the hockey TV business on the local level as its Fox Sports regional cablers have locked up the local cable TV rights to 20 of the league’s 21 U.S.-based teams.

At the national broadcast level, hockey has been a money-loser for Fox Broadcasting Co. ever since the web first acquired the NHL rights four years ago. Fox’s telecasts of NHL games during the 1997-98 hockey season averaged a low 1.6 national Nielsen household rating.

In a survey of Fox’s 170-odd broadcast affils, the station managers voted overwhelmingly to dump hockey rather than pay a huge rights fee increase, sources said. Under the current NHL deal, Fox paid about $155 million over four years for the national broadcast rights, while ESPN shelled out about $100 million over seven years for national cable rights.

Speculation is that ABC/ESPN was anxious to hang onto the hockey rights because it needs pro sports franchises to feed its ESPN2 cabler, which would otherwise risk being dropped by cable operators.

Individuals familiar with the new deal said ABC has agreed to pay $250 million to broadcast the NHL for five seasons beginning in 1999, while ESPN, which currently shows the league on its ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Intl. networks, would pay $350 million to retain the national cable rights.

(Dow Jones contributed to this story.)

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