ESPN: We'd Still Pony-Up For Pucks

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ESPN is still interested in hockey, and despite reports to the contrary, is still willing to pay a rights fee, just not the $60 million option it dropped last May for rights to the 2005-2006 season.

ESPN programming chief Mark Shapiro told B&C Thursday that he has spoken with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and let him know ESPN would be willing to pay, but that the $60 million figure is no longer realistic.

NBC's NHL deal is a revenue-sharing model where it pays no rights fee, but Shapiro said he was not looking to pay nothing up front. ""That isn't the panacea, it just has to be something that reflects the situation."

And the situation is declining hockey ratings and a potentially diminished fan base.

The conversation with Bettman was prompted by the fact that it appears there will actually be a 2005-2006 season.

The league and players struck a deal Wednesday that paves the way for the puck to hit the ice after a lockout that canceled the last season and raised large flashing neon question marks about the league's future.

ESPN filled its hockey-less schedule with college sports and programming from its ESPN Original Entertainment department. That replacement programming commanded the same ratings as the NHL’s regular season and playoffs, and enabled ESPN to keep all its ad dollars previously committed to the NHL, Shapiro said back in May.

"I don't know exactly what we would pay yet," said Shapiro Thursday. "We are
looking into that, but it is definitely south of sixty million.  But we
would pay a fee, at least it would give them something."

Back when it dropped its option, Shapiro said he would be willing to pay a "modest" fee, something under half the $60 million.

Shapiro said Thursday that the league will eventually be better for the lockout, but that in the near term "they are damaged and the rights fee has to reflect that."

Shapiro said Bettman "wants to do the deal we had on the table and that deal's not there anymore.  We have a good relationship and when they are ready to talk about alternative models, we'll be right there."

But he didn't sound sanguine about his prospects of getting the rights. When asked whether the league would get its asking price, he said: ""Somebody will [pay], there's always somebody, whether it's Spike or someone else. Everyone said they have nowhere to go, but there's always somebody."

As for NBC, Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol says the network is "thrilled for the fans that hockey is returning to the ice, and delighted to be the network television partner of the NHL as it moves into what I believe will be an exciting new era."--Anne Becker contributed to this report.

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