ESPN Opts Out of NHL

NEW YORK ESPN has decided not to exercise its $60 million option to telecast National Hockey League games, regardless of whether professional hockey returns after a lockout scrapped the entire 2004-05 campaign.

In a statement this morning, Bristol, Conn.-based ESPN said that while it “would like to continue its long-term relationship with the NHL,” it was not interested in carrying games even if a new collective bargaining agreement can be hashed out.

The league had already been operating from a position of weakness before the cancellation of last season, as the network opted to shuffle its slate of NHL games over to ESPN2.

ESPN executive vp of programming and production Mark Shapiro is expected to offer further comment on the decision later today.

While things appear dire for the NHL, having lost its sole national cable distribution deal, its two-year, revenue sharing contract with NBC remains intact. The league and NBC will share advertising revenue after production costs and certain other expenses are deducted.

ESPN hasn’t closed the door on pro hockey altogether, reporting in its statement that it “remain[s] interested in a multimedia agreement that provides us with appropriate value.”

Advertisers are likely to look for steep discounts as well. Since it began slotting replacement programming into its lineup, including fare from the ESPN Original Entertainment arm and NCAA basketball, ESPN2’s ratings have more than doubled.