Fox checks CBS to win TV rights to NHL

September 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Fox Broadcasting Co. has a second sport, acquiring the network television rights to the NHL yesterday to add to the NFL rights to NFC games it purchased in December for $1.58 billion. Again, Fox outbid CBS for a major sports property.

Fox will pay $155 million over five years to broadcast games for up to 20 dates, starting with 11 in the coming season, according to people familiar with the agreement. Fox's hockey schedule will start with the Jan. 21 All-Star Game, followed by regular-season and playoff games. It will show up to three Stanley Cup finals games, all in prime time.

But Fox will have a major task ahead. While the NFC is the most valuable chunk of pro football's TV rights, NHL broadcast rights have been devalued for decades, the victim of minuscule ratings. ABC averaged a meager 1.7 for the five games it telecast in 1992-93 and the six games it broadcast in 1993-94.

ABC paid nothing for those 11 games. ESPN, the league's exclusive cable TV rights holder, purchased time on ABC to broadcast the games.

Although Fox and CBS had been in contact with the NHL for several months, formal negotiations moved quickly this week before culminating Thursday night in the Fox bid, which eclipsed CBS' estimated $150 million offer.

"We placed a value on the property, and we were not willing to go any higher," said Susan Kerr, a CBS director of programming. CBS officials are said to be angry because they believed their bid would lock up the deal, said people familiar with the talks.

CBS believed it could promote the NHL well within its programming, which includes the NCAA men's basketball tournament, college football (starting in 1996), the 1998 Winter Olympics and "Late Show with David Letterman."

Fox and league officials were unavailable for comment, as they awaited the deal's approval by the NHL Board of Governors.

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