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Icing on the cake?

Cable suitors line up to net hockey rights

As many as four cable networks — ESPN2, Spike TV, USA and Comcast’s Outdoor Life — are likely to bid on next season’s games of the National Hockey League, despite the NHL’s perennially low ratings and the cancellation of the 2004-05 season due to a labor dispute.

“I’m not surprised at all of this interest, because the NHL has value to a network,” said sports media consultant Neal Pilson. “Even though its total audience is not as large as the other pro sports leagues, its demographic of men 18-34 is very salable to advertisers.”

David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group, said, “Cable networks know that the hardcore fans, the ones who paint their faces at the games, will seek out an NHL game on cable no matter how far down the dial it bounces.”

Both Pilson and Carter said even casual fans may be drawn to next season’s games as the NHL is serious about changing its rules to speed up the game and push for more scoring.

Pilson said the loss of a whole season won’t affect hockey the way it did Major League Baseball when players went out on strike in 1994. That work stoppage lasted 232 days and wiped out that year’s World Series.

“There’s not the huge public dissatisfaction with hockey that there was with baseball,” Pilson said, adding that baseball’s TV ratings and stadium attendance fell off for years after 1994, staying in doldrums until a home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa reignited fan interest.

Pilson predicted hockey’s ratings and attendance would suffer minimally, if at all, during the 2005-06 season.

NBC owns the broadcast TV rights to NHL games for the next two years but will carry only seven regular-season Saturday afternoon games after January, six playoff games (also on Saturday afternoon) and games three through seven of the Stanley Cup Finals in primetime.

NBC pays no license fee to the NHL. Instead, the network shares advertising revenues with the NHL after it deducts the cost of producing the games.

ESPN had the previous cable contract with the NHL but declined to pick up the option for next season on a $60 million-a-year pact, giving the league carte blanche to negotiate a new deal. ESPN has said publicly it wants to emulate NBC and share ad revenues with the league rather than pay upfront.

But if Spike TV, USA and Outdoor Life put cash on the table, ESPN may change its strategy. Pilson said he wouldn’t rule out a deal that allows two cable networks to share in carrying the games, similar to the contract the National Basketball Assn. signed four years ago with ESPN and TNT.

“The resilience of live sports is remarkable,” Carter said. Even though hockey hasn’t scored big Nielsen ratings in years, “The people who do watch it are men,” he said. “And advertisers like automobile companies, beverage manufacturers and financial services are gung-ho about reaching those men.”

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