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NHL, NBC back in the game

Peacock will air hockey season

NEW YORK — After losing the entire 2004-05 season due to a labor dispute, the National Hockey League has reached an agreement that will put the players back on the ice — and some of the games back on NBC — for 2005-06.

Dick Ebersol, chairman of sports and the Olympics for NBC, said in a conference call that he’s counting on the NHL to “open up the games offensively” to try to boost the dismal ratings of the sport. One way to get more scoring, Ebersol said, “is to cut down on the goalie’s equipment so that he resembles a human being instead of a robot.”

The NHL’s Nielsens are so bleak that the league had to accept a no-cash deal from NBC. Instead, as currently envisioned, NBC will carry only seven regular-season and playoff games, all on Saturday afternoon, and games three through seven of the Stanley Cup Finals.

NBC shares the advertising revenue from these games with the NHL, but only after the network deducts the costs it incurs in producing the games.

ESPN had the last national cable contract with the NHL, but two months ago the network walked away from a renewal option for $60 million a year in license fees. ESPN has said publicly that the league’s ratings are too low for the network to consider anything but a deal similar to NBC’s: no cash, and a sharing of ad revenues after ESPN pockets its production costs.

Before settling for such a disadvantageous deal, the NHL is likely to seek out another cable network like Spike TV, which might be willing to pony up some cash.

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