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The Globe and Mail

Corporate manoeuvres complicate NHL's U.S. broadcast picture

Nick Laham/2011 Getty Images

The window on the exclusive negotiating period between the NHL and its American cable television network, Versus, closed Monday, although it does not mean the end to their relationship.

Since the window closed amid a host of changes at the network - from an executive shakeup on Tuesday to the earlier completion of the takeover of NBC by Versus's parent company, Comcast Corp. - the relationships between the NHL and its U.S. broadcasters are now "complicated," according to a league executive who wished to remain anonymous.

What complicates matters is that NBC happens to be the NHL's over-the-air carrier in the U.S., and now both of the league's American television broadcasters are owned by the same company. Both contracts expire at the end of this season.

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NBC has its own window for exclusive negotiations with the NHL, and those talks are believed to be under way. Thus, the expiration of Versus's period to negotiate exclusively with the NHL does not mean the league is going to immediately throw its U.S. television rights up for bids from competing networks such as ESPN, which is supposed to have at least some interest.

Further complicating matters is a change at the top of Versus. The SportsBusiness Daily reported Tuesday that Versus president Jamie Davis was pushed out as a result of a reorganization of NBC Sports Group in the wake of the takeover. The report said the changes will be announced Wednesday. There was no response to a request for comment from Davis.

Despite the upheaval at its television networks, the NHL can expect an increase from the $75-million (all currency U.S.) it receives annually in its current contract with Versus and in the revenue-sharing deal it has with NBC. Sources told The Globe and Mail last April that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was telling potential NHL team investors that the league expects its next U.S. television contract to take a big jump financially, potentially taking its total national television revenue, when combined with its Canadian contracts, to more than $500-million a year.

The league's U.S. television ratings are growing and two of its signature events posted healthy gains last month. The annual outdoor game, the Winter Classic, attracted 4.56 million viewers for NBC on Jan. 1, which gave the network the best ratings on the night - over ABC, CBS and Fox - for viewers aged 18 to 49. Sunday's all-star game drew almost 1.5 million viewers for Versus, which was close to a 50-per-cent increase from 2009, the last time the all-star game was played.

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