NHL skates to icy NBC deal

League also to sign one-year renewal deal with ESPN

NEW YORK — The National Hockey League, buffeted by declining ratings and a threatened player strike, will get no cash license fees in its new two-year broadcast deal with NBC.

On the same day the NHL announced its NBC contract, league said it would sign a one-year renewal deal with ESPN that includes a drop-off in coverage of the number of regular season games from 70 a year to 40, all on ESPN2, at only half the previous $120 million-a-year ESPN and sister network ABC paid under the deal that expires this season after five years.

Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, criticized ABC as being an “afterthought” in the ESPN contract the last five years.

ABC had nothing at stake because “ESPN wrote all the checks. ABC got some of those checks because ESPN paid for ABC’s air time,” taking over the sale of the ad spots, he said.

NBC — as the No. 1 network in primetime among adults 18-49 for the past few years — plans to promote NHL games to a bigger audience than ABC’s, particularly on Thursday nights, said Ebersol. “The NHL is kind of moving from the No. 4 to the No. 1 network.”

Although the NHL gets no license fees from the Peacock, league commissioner Garry Bettman says he’s hoping that a boost in the ratings of the games on NBC will bring in enough ad dollars to funnel a profit into the NHL’s coffers.

The NHL and NBC declined to discuss details of the contract, but the profit sharing of ad dollars won’t begin until NBC collects the production costs it lays out for the games it broadcasts, including all of the Stanley Cup Finals games after the first two, which will go to ESPN.

Bettman said ESPN will be indemnified if a strike by players results in lost games during the 2004-05 season.

The NBC deal includes a potential renewal for two more years, at the net’s option. The ESPN contract has two separate one-year renewal possibilities, also at ESPN’s option.

The ESPN deal also includes high-definition cablecasts of the games plus Internet and video-on-demand rights.