NHL says new TV deal could change media landscape

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida Tue Dec 7, 2010 6:33pm EST

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - With talks on a new television deal underway and a reality show about to debut, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman believes the league is poised to become a major player in the North American media market.

While the NHL's U.S. television ratings once compared with tractor pulling and poker, the league has seen those numbers steadily improve since the 2004-05 lockout.

But now the 30-team league will be looking for something more substantial than its revenue-splitting arrangement with NBC, which expires at the end of the season.

The league could also profit from a bidding war for its U.S. cable rights, currently held by Versus, if ESPN and Fox enter into the competition.

"We're a much more significant player in the media landscape for a full host of reasons," Bettman told reporters following a Board of Governors meeting Tuesday. "It's the game on the ice, the competitive balance, the things we're doing to engage our fans.

"We're in a good place. There's more interest in us than there has ever been."

The Winter Classic outdoor game is a ratings mega-hit for the NHL and this season's game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field is sure to attract even more interest with the help of an HBO reality mini-series that will follow the Washington Capitals and Penguins leading up to the New Year's Day showcase.

Much like the hugely popular "Hard Knocks" series that followed the New York Jets through the NFL preseason, 24/7 will give fans an uncensored look at the league's two biggest names, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin and Penguins' Sidney Crosby.

During the two-day meeting, the governors discussed a wide range of issues from fast approaching negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement to another rise in the salary cap, which could jump as much as $3 million next season.

The board also received an update on what impact a new rule eliminating blindside hits to the head was having on reducing the number of concussions.

"I think people in the room were comfortable that it is working the way we intended," said Bettman.

"It will continue to evolve, it's a work in progress but people are comfortable that we are on the right track."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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