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ESPN Ices NHL

5/31/2005 10:34 AM Eastern

ESPN Tuesday officially said goodbye to the National Hockey League by refusing to pick up an option for the 2005-06 season, although it left the door open for the beleaguered league to return once it settles its labor dispute.

The network did not pick up a $60 million option on its current one-year deal, saying that the league had lost value due to its nearly one-year lockout, which canceled its 2004-05 season. ESPN had until June 1 to make a decision on the option.

ESPN executive vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro said the network has broken off talks with the league, and it is moving ahead with its fall schedule sans NHL product.

“Looking at the future today, we envision next year coming and going without any NHL product,” Shapiro said. “The [NHL] could have done a deal today for a lesser rights fee or a true revenue-sharing deal [similar to the league’s deal with broadcast network NBC], and they chose not to do that.”

Shapiro, however, would not rule out the league’s return to ESPN once its labor dispute is completed, but the league would only be able to command a much lower rights fee at best. “We’re not there at $60 million,” he said. “They would have to be well south of that for us to run the gamut again.”

But NHL VP of media relations Frank Brown said in a prepared statement that the league had no interest in “further devaluating” the product by taking a rights-revenue cut, adding that a potential long-term work stoppage was factored into the $60 million option price.

"We have enjoyed a long history with ESPN, and we appreciate the network's continued interest in our product,” he added.

Much like it did last season, Shapiro said, the network will replace NHL programming with additional college-football and college-basketball games, as well as original movies and other content from its ESPN Original Entertainment arm, although he ruled out any new scripted-series launches.

He said similar replacement programming averaged around the same rating as live NHL regular-season and playoff-game telecasts. “At the same time, we were able to retain all of the ad-sales dollars that had been previously committed to the NHL,” he added.

Shapiro said it will be difficult for the league to secure any television revenue for its product until it rectifies its labor dispute, but that hasn’t stopped other cable networks from talking with the league.

Sources said Spike TV has had discussions with the NHL about reaching a revenue-sharing cable-rights arrangement. Spike officials would not comment on the matter.

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