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ESPN deal in limbo Add to ...

Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN sports network is reviewing its option to broadcast future National Hockey League games after the NHL cancelled the 2004-05 season.

ESPN had a one-year, $60-million (all figures U.S.) contract with the NHL this season and options for the next two seasons at $70-million each. ESPN can cancel each year. This year's deadline is April 15 for the season that should start in October, the network said.

The NHL cancelled the season this week after locking out players for 154 days, becoming the first North American sports league to lose a full campaign to a labour dispute. College basketball replacement programming on the ESPN2 sister channel this year doubled the ratings of last year's NHL games, which are among the least-watched North American sporting events.

"We're not making decisions until we have a full understanding of their plans," said Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice-president of programming and production.

The NHL's previous contract with ABC and ESPN for $600-million over five years ended after last season. The NHL agreed to a two-year, revenue-sharing agreement with General Electric Co.'s NBC to air games nationally and struck an accord with ESPN for games to be carried on cable television.

The NHL and NBC will share advertising revenue after production costs and league expenses are deducted, the same model NBC uses with the Arena Football League. NBC has an option to renew the hockey contract for an additional two years. "Everything carries into next season, assuming there is a full season," NBC spokesman Mike McCarley said in a telephone interview.

NBC would have seven Saturday afternoons of regular-season regional games, six playoff games and some games of the Stanley Cup final.

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